By Christopher Priest
WARNING: this will contain spoilers, but with this unusual book, it won't much matter...
The novel begins harmlessly enough with a framing device - in 1999 historian Stuart Gratton embarks on research about these mysterious twin brothers with the family name Sawyer. It makes a point of saying how the historian is adopted. At some point, Stuart encounters Angela Chipperton, the daughter of one of the Sawyer brothers, who gives him copies of her father’s old journal notes.
But the meat of the novel is the back story of the twins Jack and Joe Sawyer. One is a WWII RAF pilot and the other is a conscientious objector. It doesn’t matter who is who since both are confused and get confused throughout the novel. Ok, fair enough. Also some historical facts about WWII are true while others are completely fabricated. Fine, I’m down with this alternate history stuff.
Now skip towards the end of the novel. I realized that Stuart Gratton is the illegitimate son of Jack Sawyer when Joe was having one of his alternate reality hallucinations, while Angela Chipperton was the product of another parallel universe. And then I realized Priest allowed two characters to exist in the same world when they shouldn’t. And then I went WTF? What the hell did I just read?
Thankfully I found this helpful essay by Paul Kincaid that really analyzes the structure of the novel and the author’s motive for creating such a complex, rug-pulling narrative by summing up in a simple sentence: It is not the narrators who are unreliable, but the worlds that they narrate.
Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed The Separation. Not only was it brilliantly written, but the nonlinear narrative, despite its elliptical surrealism, was quite absorbing and sucked me right in. But I must admit that Priest is a little too clever a writer for me. There is definitely a logic in how Priest deviates from narrative linearity and it’s a tribute to his skill that he can still maintain a connective suture with the reader, even if the reader doesn’t get everything. The amount of knowledge and detail in regards to WWII historical backdrop was a significant factor. But I lacked the patience and discipline to pay attention to the cues and clues that would have made the reading experience truly rewarding. And when I realized I should have been paying more attention, it was way too late, and I'm damn well not going to re-read the book to get my "oh yeah!".
For example, early in the novel there is a passage where after the Hamburg raid, Jack is driven from a convalescent hospital to a rehabilitation centre. About 300 pages later, Joe is riding in a Red Cross ambulance back to Manchester, but Priest recycles the earlier passage almost word for word. I would not have noticed this duplication at all if I had not found Kincaid’s essay! According to Kincaid, these parallel passages between Jack and Joe are one of a number of deliberate duplications where it may signal a time shift, or symbolize a developing crossover or overlap between the twin identities.
The essay further states “in a very important sense this is not a novel about separation but about unification.” The themes of separation and unification are constantly played out not just between the twin brothers, but between England and Germany, the motives of Winston Churchill and Rudolf Hess, reality and non-reality, etc etc.
A very interesting and absorbing read this was, but The Separation ultimately lacked any emotionally satisfying resolution that usually comes with a more traditionally structured novel. My sentiments lie with what is outlined in this nicely pithy review as well as Olman’s review. Olman also points out that The Prestige is a much more satisfying read for unsophisticated empiricists like him since it lacks the twists and tricks of this book, so I would not hesitate in checking that out too.