Thursday, April 18, 2024

"Widowland" by C.J. Carey (re-read)

North American cover 
Our upcoming book for May for the Nomo Book Club within the Childless Collective private online community will be "Queen High" by C.J. Carey (which goes by the title "Queen Wallis" in North America).  I've already read that book in October 2022 (reviewed here), but I knew I'd want to re-read it to refresh my memory before our discussion began -- particularly since I'll be the one leading it! (lol) 

But I also realized I wanted to try to squeeze in a re-read of her earlier book, "Widowland" (which we read together in November 2021 -- past review here). (Side note:  Our Zoom discussion of "Widowland" was held at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m. here in North America!  As much as I loved the book & was dying to discuss it with someone, I did NOT set my alarm!  lol I eventually talked up both books so much to dh that he wound up reading them both too -- and enjoying them!)   

I wasn't sure I would have time to re-read both -- but "Widowland" was (still) a speedy read, and I still have just under two weeks to go before the beginning of May, so...  ;)  

I've often described "Widowland" (and "Queen High/Queen Wallis") as "Fatherland" by Robert Harris crossed with Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale." (I've also heard comparisons to George Orwell's "1984" and Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle,"  although I haven't read those -- yet!)  I'm not especially interested in fantasy or science fiction, generally, but I've always found alternative history/speculative/dystopian fiction intriguing -- especially those with the premise that the Nazis won World War II -- and these two books fall squarely into that category.  

The central premise of "Widowland" (and "Queen High/Queen Wallis") is that Britain capitulated to Germany in 1940, formed an "alliance" with them and is now operating under a Nazi "Protectorate." Memories of "the Time Before" are fading (and are actively discouraged). Most able-bodied men have been sent to labour camps, and women have been classified according to age, heritage, reproductive status and physical characteristics -- which determines where they live, the rations they receive, the clothes they wear, the kind of work they do, etc. 

At the top of the pecking order are the most pure and beautiful young women -- the "Gelis" (named for the niece Hitler was obsessed with -- who committed suicide). Also highly ranked: the "Klaras" -- fertile mothers of at least four children. At the bottom of the ladder (just guess!!) are the "Friedas" -- childless widows over 50, who do menial labour, receive subsistence-level rations (no meat or eggs), and are relegated to live in the rundown, fenced-off slums known as "Widowlands." 

King George VI and his family disappeared shortly after the Alliance was formed, and King Edward VIII and his American divorcee wife (now Queen), Wallis Simpson, have returned from exile. After a long delay, their coronation will be held on May 2, 1953, and the Leader himself (i.e., Hitler) will be coming to Britain for the first time to attend. 

The Coronation -- and the Leader's visit -- are two weeks away, and tensions are running high. Subversive graffiti, in the form of quotations from now mostly forgotten female authors ("Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it and there will be an end to blind obedience" -- Mary Wollstonecraft;  “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” -- Virginia Woolf), painted in large bright red letters, has been popping on libraries and other public buildings around the country. The prime suspects are the Friedas of the Widowlands:  they remember "the Time Before," they know the literature -- and they have little to fear, because they have so little to lose. 

Although the book is titled "Widowland," the central character is Rosalind "Rose" Ransom, a "Geli," who works at the Ministry of Culture, editing/rewriting classic works by the likes of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte to make their heroines more submissive and acceptable to the new regime. After hours, she's the reluctant mistress of her SS boss (who is married, with a wife and children back in Germany). She's 29 years old, and the clock is ticking before her lack of a husband and children will subject her to reclassification. 

With two weeks to go before the Leader arrives, Rose has been tasked with interviewing some of the residents of Widowland and identifying suspects. What she learns from these women changes her life -- and, possibly, the course of history. 

Two and a half years after I first read it, I'm more conscious of the book's flaws, as pointed out by other reviewers. And (and I realize I'm biased! ;)  ) I (still!) would have loved to see more of the Widowlands and Friedas than we do.  ;)  To me, they are the true heroines of this book!  

Original U.K. edition cover 
But overall, I found this book just as riveting (and chilling) as I did the first time around. As I said in my original review, "It's derivative -- there have been other "what if Hitler won the war" novels & films -- but this dystopian premise, combined with feminism, childlessness and the subversive power of literature is a potent mixture and highly thought provoking."  I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I first read it (and I find myself recommending it to others at every opportunity!) -- I think that says something! 

Moreover, given the current political climate in many countries around the world -- books, libraries and freedom of the press under attack, voting rights being eroded, women's reproductive freedoms and other rights being rapidly rolled back (not to mention rampant pronatalism and misogyny) --  and a critical U.S. election just months away -- I found the book's messages even more relevant than I did when I originally read it. 

My original rating of 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5, stands.  

Text note: As I mentioned here, there are some differences between the original U.K. hardcover version (published by Quercus) and the North American edition (published in paperback and digital formats by Sourcebooks)  -- most notably at the very end. I first noticed this when the North American paperback version came out (I already had the original hardcover edition from the U.K.). 

I'm planning to go back to both books, once I've finished them, and do a closer comparison. (Hey, i used to do stuff like this for a living...!)  So far, I've mostly noticed changes in spelling (e.g., "favour" in the U.K. edition becomes "favor") and terminology (e.g., "Commissioner" becomes "minister"). 

This was Book #12 read to date in 2024 (and Book #3 finished in April), bringing me to 27% of my 2024 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 45 books. I am (for the moment, anyway...!) 1 book behind schedule to meet my goal.  :(   You can find reviews of all my books read to date in 2024 tagged as "2024 books." 

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