Since seeing The Prestige, I became aware that Christopher Priest's career is going stronger than ever. The library here actually had 4 hardback copies of The Separation and it seems to have gotten such rave reviews, yet it completely passed under the radar here in North America.
There is something about Priest's writing style that compells me and yet keeps me at a certain distance. I suspect that he is a very careful writer, crafting his sentences because his prose always has a slightly objective feel to it, as if the characters themselves are slightly removed from their own lives. I really like that because it avoids all the flowery adverbs and adjectives and excessive self-psychology of so many american authors (even good ones). On the other hand, it can sometimes make you feel not totally caught up in the book. Again, I suspect it is deliberate, because he is still very good at changing the voice when he changes narrators.
The Separation is a story where these kinds of details are very signficant, because not only does it jump around from narrator, it also appears to jump around in realities! The basic story is framed in a contemporary author who writes histories of the Second World War. He is researching an elusive individual who, from his research, appears to have been both a concientious objector and an RAF bomber pilot. The bulk of the book is then the narrative of these characters, who turn out to be twin brothers. We see their story through their eyes and through a few other characters around them, as well as some historical documents.
On the surface, they were both excellent athletes, who rowed for England in the 36 Olympics in Berlin and then fought over their differing positions on war. One became an objector and a Red Cross worker, the other an RAF bomber. Each gets involved in some way with the escape of Rudolph Hess in 1941 (who, in our world, split from Hitler and claimed he was trying to make peace with England and ended his life in prison in Nuremburg).
From what I've written so far, it all sounds very straightforward. What I haven't omitted is that the modern author is living in a time very different from our own. I won't go into any more detail because it is cool in the reading. And as you read the various narratives, things get even weirder. This is what makes this such a great book. The stories of the twins are absorbing and ultimately really moving, but it is also working at a much bigger level, where complex layers of alternating realities make the reader question what drives history forward and how certain decisions make change in the world. I don't know if I get entirely what Priest's goal was but this is a rich, complex and moral book that makes you question your own stand on war, without lacking entertainment.
It is also clear that Priest has done a great deal of research himself, both on the larger political developments of the Second World War as well as the more personal details of living under the blitz and piloting a bomber. This makes this book a great read for any WWII buffs as well as sci-fi fans. Probably the most impactful book I've read this year so far.