Book review: Fatherland, by Robert Harris

Berlin, 1964. Germany crushed Britain and Russia, won the Second World War, spent the next two decades locked in a cold war with the United States. Hitler’s 75th birthday is approaching, just in time for a new detente with the US. And German detective Xavier March has just been called in to investigate the discovery of a body in an exclusive neighbourhood, which will kick off events further-reaching than March could have dreamed…


I found Robert Harris’ novels about Cicero and the Roman Polanski film based on another of his books (The Ghost Writer) enjoyable but nowhere near great. But his first novel, Fatherland, showed me why the man is a bestseller.


Fatherland’s characters won’t win any awards for originality. Xavier March himself – middle-aged, at a career dead-end, estranged from his ex-wife and son, cynical about the Nazi Party – is straight out of central casting. The rest of the cast falls into equally familiar archetypes, from spunky journalist to Nazi brutes. And I suspect a veteran thriller reader would be able to say the same about the plot – even as a novice to the genre, a number of Fatherland’s plot developments felt awfully familiar, and I was even able to guess one of the major twists.


The real star is the dystopic setting. “The Nazis win WW2” is the most hackneyed of alternate histories, and I have a couple of niggles with Harris’ timeline, but none of that detracts from the book. Harris brings his setting to life with skilful detail, sometimes through March’s observations, sometimes through casual remarks, sometimes through well-written and interesting infodumps. We see March’s fellow Germans cringe from his SS uniform, we see the values of Nazi society reflected everywhere from the personals ads of March’s newspaper to the “crimes” investigated by some of his colleagues, we see how March’s devoutly Nazi son loves touring Berlin to admire Albert Speer’s post-war architecture, we hear rumours of the atrocities committed by March’s counterparts in the Gestapo. And this is more than background colour. The setting, plot and characters, stock though they might individually be, combine to create a work of chilling power.


It is that chill which makes Fatherland so effective. This is not a feel-good book, except in the sense that it should make you grateful that history unfolded the way it did. But even knowing its biggest reveal before I started (this has to be one of the few spoiler-free reviews of Fatherland on the internet) did nothing to diminish the bleak horror when it did unfurl. And guessing much of its ending hasn’t prevented the book’s final moments from lingering with me. A worthwhile read.


 You can buy Fatherland from Amazon here


I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.


What I’ve just read: Lustrum, by Robert Harris

Tonight, I finished Robert Harris’ Lustrum (released in the US as Conspirata), the second novel in his Cicero trilogy (the first was Imperium). It was an enjoyable, fast-paced read, although I doubt I’ll reread it any time soon. There were two particular things that I liked about the book.


One, Caesar is a villain for a change. And as a villain, he makes a fine nemesis for Cicero: menacing, mercilessly hungry for power, capable of bouncing back Hydra-like from every defeat. Making Caesar the villain, I think, also adds a note of dramatic irony to the novels: the reader is perfectly aware that it will be Caesar who has the last laugh by becoming history’s best-known Roman, and that Caesar will be the one who eventually pulls down the Republic.


And two, while I still do not know that much Roman history, I am finally reaching the point where I was able to get the most out of the book. You know how sometimes, when you’re a fan of a given work, you might watch an adaptation and be thrilled when you spot a shout-out to the original, or when you know what’ll happen next because you read the book? That was pretty much how I felt. So I was happy to see Lucullus, the successful general turned to decadence in his retirement, showing off his fish ponds. I rubbed my hands together when I read that the rites of the Good Goddess would take place at Caesar’s house, because I had a feeling about what was coming up. I muttered, “Uh oh,” to myself when Fulvia made a cameo. In other words, the book came along at the right time for me, after I had learned a bit about Rome.


All in all, the book was well worth the price I paid, and I look forward to the final novel in Harris’ Cicero trilogy.