The Windsor Faction, by D.J. Taylor

I received a free copy of this ebook to review on behalf of the publisher from NetGalley. It will be released 25 September 2013.

The Windsor Faction
Alternate histories hinge on one turning point, one moment when our history zigged and the other zagged. In D.J. Taylor's The Windsor Faction, that moment came in 1936 when Wallis Simpson died rather than caused the abdication crisis. Edward VIII, in this history, stayed king through 1939 and on, rather than his brother, George VI. In our history, Edward was a German sympathizer. (In fact, if you look him up on Wikipedia, you'll see a picture of him from 1937 with Hitler.) World War II was inevitable. You'd have to change more than Wallis Simpson's fate to change that. The Windsor Faction revolves around an attempt by some men in the British government who are definitely not the heads of state trying to negotiate peace with Germany before anyone actually starts fighting.

As I read this book, I was strongly reminded of Lord Darlington's similar efforts in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. In that book, too, "amateur diplomats" with too little information about the actual situation in Europe try to stop war from completely breaking out. Most of The Windsor Faction takes place after September 1939, so if you know your history you already know that it's too late even in this alternate timeline because Germany has already taken the Sudetenland and invaded Poland.

The novel is narrated in turns by Cynthia Kirkpatrick, the daughter of returned ex-patriots from Ceylon (later Sri Lanka); Beverly Nichols, a writer; Rodney, an unfortunate bagman; and, sometimes, King Edward himself. None of them instigated the plot, but they all get caught up in it. For the first half, things move slowly as characters put other characters into position and the news from Europe worsens. In fact, there's a distinct sense of ennui from many of the characters as they try to keep their upper lips stiff. I started to wonder if that was all there was to this book, just subtext buried so deeply that only a Freudian psychoanalyst could dig it up. But the last third of the story changes everything from a tale of keeping calm and carrying on into a pretty good thriller. The ending is wonderful.

It's strange to read an alternate history that hews so closely actual history. I'm still a little puzzled about what to make of it. Why did the author choose to alter history? The story would have been believable without the premise.

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