Widowland by C J Carey

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Widowland by C J Carey

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Books get edited to keep women down in this look at a Nazified alternative Britain. For all the lack of drive the lead character has, this still compels.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: June 2021
Publisher: Quercus
ISBN: 978-1529411980

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It's April 1953, and Adolf Hitler's schedule includes going to Moscow to attend the state funeral of Joseph Stalin then within weeks coming to London, parading around a bit, and watching over the sanctioned return to the throne of Edward VIII with his wife, Queen Wallis. For yes, Britain caved in the lead-up to the World War Two that certainly didn't happen as we know it, and we are now a protectorate – well, we share enough of the same blood as the Germanic peoples on the mainland. But this is most certainly a different Britain, for Nazi-styled phrenology, and ideas of female purpose, has put all of that gender into a caste system, ranging from high-brow office bigwigs to the drudges, and beyond those, right on down to the childless, the husbandless and the widows. Female literacy is actively discouraged. And in this puritanical existence, our heroine, Rose Ransom, is employed with the task of bowdlerising classical literature to take all encouragement for female emancipation out of it – after all, not every book can be banned, and not every story excised immediately from British civilisation, and so they just get a hefty tweak towards the party line before they're stamped ready for reprint. That is her job, at least, until the first emerging signs of female protest come to light, with their potential to spoil Hitler's visit.

This novel is definitely "Fahrenheit 451" meets "A Handmaid's Tale" - and throughout is as easily and quickly read as its own elevator pitch. And for once I was on the side of this being better for being a 'light' read – a proper Atwoodian piece could have been a touch too heavy. That said, as a rip-snorter it's not doing itself too many favours – you hit the third-way-in mark and realise you've had a lot of what is a slightly awkward mix between story and exposition, between world-building flashback and something actually happening. Not that this is a long book, but I felt the immersion of our heroine in her plot could have been snappier.

There is also a claim to say that this didn't go quite as far as it might. Yes, we're reminded that Hugo Boss earned his fortune providing the SS and others with their uniforms, and we get a lot of talk about the Nazis from over there working and ruling over here, but we don't get enough comment on the National Socialist sentiment that was in the UK – our UK – in the 1930s. Until they grudgingly got mentioned I thought we'd never see the Mitford sisters here, lest it trigger their heirs' lawyers, and we're told how the press works with no mention of one of the real-world proprietors being very much a party believer (Hello, Lord Rothermere).

But to repeat, these are quickly-turned pages that certainly engage. Well, books and women are being suppressed, and they're two of my favourite things, so I'm bound to empathise. The author credit is purposefully genderless (although ten seconds' search online gives some clue as to who the real author is), but whoever they are they get this milieu and how it inflicts on the females in it perfectly well. Its lightness of touch would suggest to me this is aiming more for a female readership, no criticism intended. But one thing does hinder the piece from being called a feminist book, and actually hinders the whole thing from getting a higher grade, and that's Rose. She demonstrably does as little as possible towards the goal imposed on her, and by the time you realise it's not that sort of book, and it will build up to something else happening instead, you see just how rarely she's allowed any agency. Yes she is in a stifling world, but she's hardly allowed to be the heroine of her own story. That and other things will make sure this never gets the classic status of the books she edits, but I certainly had great fun with this alternative Britain.

And of course, it goes without saying, but we also recommend The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

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