Widowland by C J Carey: A fascinating and absorbing new take on Britain under the Nazi jackboot - book review -
The year 1953 is going to be a memorable one for the people of Great Britain… a new king and queen are to be crowned and the country’s great Leader plans to be there.
But instead of crowds witnessing the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, this is Nazi Britain under a sinister German protectorate, and King Edward and Queen Wallis are about to take the throne.
In a beguiling blend of Robert Harris’ Fatherland, C. J. Sansom’s Dominion and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, C.J. Carey – recently revealed as the pen name of journalist and novelist Jane Thynne – brings us a thrilling alternative history with a seductive feminist twist.
The idea for Widowland, a chilling story of political power and social control set in a superbly imagined dystopian world in which women are deemed lesser beings, was sparked by Carey’s own experience of marginalisation when she became a widow after the death of her writer husband Philip Kerr in 2018, and the treatment of older German women during the war years.
Using her research into the plight of the Friedhöferfrauen (Cemetery Women), Carey discovered that these ‘widows without children’ were allocated the meanest rations because they were deemed useless to society.
And so her alternate history took shape… a full-realised, richly detailed Britain where Hitler’s philosopher and ideologue Alfred Rosenberg rules as Protector and is using the country to fulfil his dream of building a ‘perfect society.’
It’s a place where women are classified under a caste system, based on age, heritage, reproductive status and physical characteristics, which subjects the lowest of the low caste – the Friedas – to life in the rundown Widowland slums where there is no nutritious food, no colour, no freedom and no hope.
At the top of the pile are the Gelis – the representation of ‘perfect womanhood’ noted for being young, intelligent, talented and beautiful – and it is Rose Ransom, a 29-year-old Geli working as a censor at the Culture Ministry, who takes centre stage.
Her job is to rewrite literature to correct the views of the past and she has been charged with making Jane Eyre more submissive, Elizabeth Bennet less feisty, and Dorothea Brooke less intelligent.
Thirteen years have passed since a Grand Alliance between Great Britain and Germany was formalised in 1940 but all the current talk is of the upcoming Coronation Day in London. George VI and his family have ‘disappeared,’ Edward VIII and Queen Wallis are on the throne but in practice, all power is vested in Alfred Rosenberg, Britain’s Protector.
Rosenberg regards Britain as the perfect petri dish for his ideal society, and the role and status of women is his particular interest. The caste system determines every aspect of their lives, from where they live and what clothes they wear to what entertainment they can enjoy and how many calories they can consume in a strictly rationed society.
One morning Rose – whose guilty secret is that she loves words despite a rule that women should have only a ‘limited vocabulary’ – is summoned to the Cultural Commissioner’s office and given a special, but perilous, task. Outbreaks of insurgency have been seen across the country and graffiti has been daubed on public buildings.
Disturbingly, the graffiti is made up of lines from famous works, subversive ideas from the voices of women, and suspicion has fallen on Widowland, widows and spinsters over fifty who have no children, no reproductive purpose, and who do not serve a man.
These women are known to be mutinous because they having nothing to lose and have no fear. Before the Leader arrives for the Coronation ceremony, Rose must infiltrate Widowland, find the source of this rebellion, and ensure that it is quashed.
But as she begins to investigate, Rose discovers something that could change the protectorate forever… and in the process change herself.
Widowland proves to be a deliciously dark, bleak and intriguing take on a surrender Britain where society has been suppressed, intimidated and redesigned into an intensely patriarchal order where women – even those in the higher castes – have no real control over their lives.
Inside this dystopian female nightmare, Carey imagines a group of highly literate, discarded but not down-and-out, coterie of women who are ready to use their brains and their knowledge to fight back against Rosenberg’s pernicious protectorate.
But it will be up to Rose – dispatched to root out the widowed rebels from her protected but stifling corner of Alliance Britain – to carry the fight forward and use her increasingly precarious position to try to change the future of both herself and her relegated sisterhood.
Brimming with richly detailed, exciting world-building, intriguing characters, and a growing sense of menace, Widowland is a fascinating and absorbing new take on Britain under the Nazi jackboot.
(Quercus, hardback, £14.99)