If I made a list of science fiction-y writers in the world, Christopher Priest would be near the tip-top. Sublime prose, deft structure, probing ontological and metaphysical questions, intellectual engagement—books like The Affirmation, The Prestige, The Glamour, and others feature a writer who captures the art, imagination, and humanity inherently possible to writing. Continuing his run of success (and books with titles beginning with ‘The’), The Separation is both innately Priest yet something entirely fresh in his oeuvre.
Fish scales was the metaphor continuously popping into my head while reading The Separation—a strange thing considering the novel is a frame story. The book opens with pop historian Stuart Gratton searching for memoirs, testimonials, briefings—anything that can give him more information on a lesser-known British pilot from World War II named J.L. Sawyer. Having an identical twin, Sawyer competed in the 1936 Olympics in Germany alongside his brother in the coxless pairs, meeting some success. Rowing not a profitable enterprise, upon his return to England Sawyer pursued his second love in university, aircraft. Earning his pilot’s license and joining the RAF, his skills arrive just time in time for war to break out over Europe. Captain of numerous sorties over Germany, luck eventually catches up to Sawyer and he is shot down over the English Channel. Pulled from the sea by rescue craft, it is Sawyer’s convalescence which finds him trying to put the pieces, i.e. fish scales, back together.
As historically rich and grounded as The Separation is in wartime and post-war Britain, at its heart is a search for identity and understanding of memory, as well as a probing of the moments on which later outcomes hinge. Priest clearly having done research into RAF bombing raids, Winston Churchill’s memoirs, and the inner workings of the Third Reich before, during and after WWII, he uses a handful of very specific elements to complement Sawyer’s narrative. Key to understanding this is, where Sawyer was a bomber pilot, his twin brother is a conscientious objector who works with the Red Cross in attempt to heal the proverbial wounds of Nazi bombing raids in London. The Churchill we know from history was not entirely pacifist, something which Priest plays with. Conversely, history remembers Rudolf Hess as an evil member of the Third Reich. His parachuting into Scotland on a ‘peace mission’ amid the war is not something oft recalled, but Priest does, using the moment as one of the many hinges upon which future outcomes play out. History not a straight line in The Separation, the personal and social shift and move in many directions.
Another reason fish scales are my metaphor of choice is narrative structure. Beyond the framing device (which in this case might be called the fish’s backbone), Priest slowly and regularly lays down bits of story, overlapping elements here, moving slightly in a new direction there, jumping ahead in time, returning to an event from another perspective (and all without sacrificing any narrative coherence—a wonderful success). We see the Sawyer brothers from university through to retirement, but again, with no line of bread crumbs to follow, rather an array. These fish scales iridescent, they change brightness and color depending on perspective. Which is a good time to introduce…
…the unreliable narrator. One aspect of the fish scales’ iridescence is that the characters cannot and should not be taken at their word. On one hand, things are happening behind the scenes that the narrator either is withholding, remembers incorrectly, or does not realize as with The Affirmation. And on the other, Priest subtly plays with the underlying reality of the story, something more akin to his Dream Archipelago novels. And there is the added element of twins. There is one scene in the novel, for example, wherein Sawyer’s air crew see him walking along a road near their base. They wave, but get no response. The reader immediately thinks “Well, it must have been Sawyer’s twin brother, hence the lack of recognition.” But the reader is never 100% sure given the way Priest deploys fish scales. This and the other ways in which Priest implements uncertainty ultimately combine to offer a novel whose author and main characters cannot be completely trusted, but in turn create a novel more than the sum of its parts.
In the end, The Separation is as good a novel as Priest has ever written, if not his best. The science fiction-y elements minimal, one would be better off labelling the novel as slipstream given how readily recognizable yet trembling reality is underfoot—another good metaphor paralleling the novel’s interests in memory and identity. Most of the searching for self and identity routed through twins, doppelgangers, and alternate histories, any reader with a particular interest in these areas will find a rich bed of material if not just damn good story.