By C. J. Carey; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman
In this intriguing novel, the United States never enters World War II. Britain, exhausting its resources, finally capitulates to Germany. The Third Reich then establishes a British protectorate led by Alfred Rosenberg, one of the key authors of Nazi ideological creeds.
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and their daughters Elizabeth and Margaret have disappeared and the coronation of King Edward VIII and Queen Wallis Warfield Simpson Windsor is two weeks away.
The Leader is coming from Germany to attend the coronation, launching his tour with a visit to Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.
At the heart of this story is Rose Ransom who appears to be a well-adapted post-Protectorate young British woman. She works in the Ministry of Culture correcting British literary works to better reflect German culture, values and appropriate male-female behavior.
Under the German caste system for women, she has the highest rank; she is a Gelli Girl (named after the Leader’s beloved niece). Her ranking dictates the work she can do, what kind of housing she can have and the amount of food she can eat, the clothes she can wear and how she must behave.
But Gelli Girls are expected to get married and produce children. This can be challenging in Protectorate Britain where men between the ages of 18 and 35 have been sent to Europe provide a labor force that the war wiped out.
However, Assistant Culture Minister Martin Kreuz, is not only her boss, he is her lover. And this is just the beginning of the contradictions that Rose faces.
She lives in a society where girls go to school several years later than boys. When they are taught to read, they are given a lesser vocabulary than boys.
Yet Rose, who grew up before the Protectorate was formed, spent many happy hours with her father reading poetry, Shakespeare and renowned works of literature.
She’s finding that the words she’s altering in great literary works are inspiring. She is secretly writing, hiding her notebooks in a hollow behind the wallpaper in her bedroom.
When she sees graffiti scrawled in red paint across the facade of the British Library: “Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience,” she asks the man in charge of removing it where the words come from. She secretly writes down “Mary Wollstonecraft” and hides the note when he tells her.
As Rose starts to understand that she’s living a double life, she becomes increasingly suspicious of those around her. She’s cautious what she says to Kreuz. She worries that a colleague, Oliver Ellis, who always seems to be around or wanting to go out for a drink, may be spying on her.
Even more worrying, she’s called into the Culture Minister’s office for a special assignment: she is to find out who is behind the graffiti so they can be arrested and punished before the Leader’s arrival. The Leader has a special interest in libraries which seem to be a focus of the graffiti.
The minister believes the culprits must be Friedas. These are widows and spinsters older than 50, “who had no children and no reproductive purpose and who did not serve a man.” The name is short for Friedhöfsfrauen, or cemetery women. They are lowest among women, given starvation rations, menial jobs and assigned to shared housing with roommates they are least likely to be compatible with in rundown, undesirable parts of cities.
“The Friedas are known to be keen on reading. We regularly lock them up for flouting every goddamn regulation that exists regarding literature. You know the rule — books may not be discussed by groups of more than three, except under regulated conditions,” the minister says. “The fact is, these old Friedas fear nothing and without husbands or children, it’s hard to get a lever on them. They’re difficult to crack.”
Rose is to be sent to the Widowland to interview Friedas about the myths of their childhoods. Her cover story will be that she’s doing research for a book that Protector Rosenberg is writing about the similarities between the Anglo-Saxons and Aryans. Her real mission will be to identify the rebels. The minister makes it clear that should she fail, retribution will fall heavily on Kreutz. While her attraction to Kreutz is growing dimmer, she clearly understands that punishment will not fall solely on Kreutz should she fail.
The tension steadily rises in this atmospheric novel. For Rose, it’s no longer enough to keep her face expressionless and her opinions secret. She’s discovering that all around her nothing is what it appears to be. The time is coming when she must take a stand for what she believes.
Author C. J. Carey, who has written a number of books about women in the 1930s in Germany, creates a world that is entirely credible and compelling. She is telling history at a personal, bread-and-butter level. Despite the fact that this is a look backward — and an alternate view — much of what she writes resonates with today’s political debates about gender, abortion and women’s roles.
While Carey uses actual names of German leaders in many places, she avoids using the words “Nazi” or “Hitler” to make the point that these events could have happened in any time or place where fascism thrives.
The sequel to WIDOWLAND is QUEEN HIGH, which takes place two years after the ending of the first book.
The Author: C. J. Carey
J. Carey is the pen name of Jane Thynne, a novelist, journalist, and broadcaster.
WIDOWLAND is the first novel that she has written under the name of C. J. Carey. The idea came to her after having lunch with a friend soon after her husband, novelist Philip Kerr, had died. Her friend said he and his partner would love to have her for dinner sometime, but they only invited couples.
The novels she had written as Jane Thynne are part of the Clara Vine series featuring and actress/agent living Germany from 1933 on into World War II. These novels in part focus on how the regime dictated their daily lives. This gave C. J. Carey a foundation for WIDOWLAND.
Born in Venezuela, she went to school in London and then to Oxford University where she read English.
She has worked at The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, and the BBC, among others. She lives in London.
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