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.
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