The counterfactual alternate history in which Germany wins World War 2 is not a new idea. The first books and short stories to play with this idea were already emerging in the 1950s, leading to one of the most famous – The Man in the High Castle – in 1962. But there have been plenty since, most notably Len Deighton’s SS-GB and Robert Harris’ Fatherland. So anyone dipping into this alternate history world already has big shoes to fill. But CJ Carey goes a couple of steps further in her debut. She melds her alternate history with the anti-feminist dystopian style made famous by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and an anti-literature dystopian thread reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451.
When Widowland opens it is 1953, and the British public are gearing up for the coronation of Edward VI and his American wife Wallis Simpson. After having made an alliance with Germany early in World War 2, Britain has become a Protectorate under the rule of Alfred Rosenberg. Rose Ransom works for the Culture Commission editing famous works of literature to ensure that they better represent the party line. And that line is that women should know their place as subservient to men with the primary responsibility of bearing and raising children. But trouble is brewing beneath the surface of the Protectorate. Quotes from feminist writers are appearing around the country as graffiti and with an ageing Hitler (never named) set to attend the coronation, authorities want to crack down on this dissent. As part of this effort, Rose is sent under the cover of a research trip to the “widowland” in Oxford to try and find the source of the troubles. A widowland is a gated community where elderly, “non productive” women, known as Freidas, live in squalid conditions. Soon, Rose finds herself caught up and trying to decide what side she is on.
Widowland is much more about world building to tell a cautionary tale than it is about character or plot. But that world building comes across as a melange of dystopian and speculative novels of the past. The world of Protectorate Britain, cowed into compliant submission and ruled by scarcity is well rendered but not particularly original. And by putting Nazis in the positions of power, the politics of Widowland are clear from the outset but Carey still wastes no time in ensuring readers are on side with the revolution.
Women in the world of Widowland are categorised according to their beauty, ability to breed and utility. Taking cues almost directly from The Handmaid’s Tale, each category of women is labelled to indicate where they sit in the pecking order. so that Rose is a “Geli” (named afer Hitler’s beloved niece”) essentially at the top of this hierarchy but others lower down in the order are Lenis, Magdas, Friedas etc.
Taking cues from another branch of dystopian literature, Carey also dabbles in the idea of eradication of culture. This is epitomised not only by Rose’s job altering literature but also others whose job it is to rewrite British history to make it more ‘Germanic’. All of this work counterpointed by the rebellion’s maintenance of an oral form of classic books and the use of inspirational quotes by feminist writers.
None of this is helped by Rose who as a character seems to be defined by the author’s idea that she should be rebellious. For the majority of the book Rose has very little agency – her political awakening seems to come from people (including her hospitalised father) telling her she should be more active or because she falls for a revolutionary. Even that relationship is rushed and involves a character turning from suspicious to dreamy way too quickly. And it is never clear why an apparatus with a huge secret service (which turns out plenty of collaborators) would need to use Rose as an information gatherer in the first place, except that narratively this gets her out into the heart of the rebellion.
For the most part, Widowland is well written and engaging and it does build to a tense climax, which itself requires a suspension of disbelief even in the world of the book. So that in the end, those unfamiliar with the inspiration that it draws from are likely to enjoy Widowland. Other readers are probably going to be too distracted spotting its influences.