D. J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction, a brilliant, richly colored alternate history, is the kind of book some might call literary fantasy. He poses the questions, What would happen if Edward VIII had not abdicated the throne because Wallis Simpson died in 1936? And what if he were a fascist sympathizer?
This is one of those un-put-downable novels that readers both of literary and genre fiction like.
The clarity and momentum of Taylor’s prose remind me of Connie Willis’s entertaining Hugo-winning historical science fiction novels, Blackout and All Clear. Although Taylor’s book does not feature time travel (then it would be SF/fantasy), both writers describe the edgy atmosphere of English life in wartime.
The Windsor Faction might make my Best Books of 2013 List.
It has so much going for it.
It might have a shot at the Hugo.
It is absolutely brilliant, but I admit I didn’t absolutely love it. And does a common reader need to love a brilliant book to count it as best?
Taylor’s novel is told in multiple forms and from multiple points of view: a traditional third-person narrative from the perspective of Cynthia Kirkpatrick, a bored young woman living in Colombo with her parents, who, when they return to England, works at a spy-ridden literary magazine in London; the diary of Beverley Nichols, a journalist (known for humorous gardening books like Merry Hall) who collaborates with the King on a speech he delivers on Christmas; newspaper articles and editorials about the death of Mrs. Simpson in 1936 and the beginnings of the war in 1939; and the notes of Johnson, a humdrum spy who attends fascist meetings to apprehend conspirators against the war.
Sometimes it’s difficult for us Americans to know what is English history and what is alternate history. At first I thought, Beverley Nichols? Not the garden writer! But, by Jove, it is indeed. I read the Author’s Note to clear things up.
Cynthia is my favorite character, and I much preferred the sections about her: I like her questioning of the humdrum lives of her parents and her hope to do something fascinating in London. When she visits the Bannisters, the family of her boyfriend/fiance, Harry, who died in the East, she feels a fraud. She did not love him. In Harry’s old room, she finds a draft of a letter to another girl. She is surprised to learn that the girl had enormous breasts.
She looks at the boys’ stories and Loeb editions of Greek writers on his shelves.
The copies of The Liveliest Term at Templeton and The White House Boys stared back at her, and she thought that there were whole areas of English life that she had altogether failed to understand, that there was some vital qualification missing form her repertoire that would have enabled her to better comprehend Henry Bannister and his kind, to sympathize with them, and deal with them, and not be so discountenanced by their actions or the letters they wrote to anonymous girls, with (apparently) enormous breasts, that they left lying around in Loeb editions of Xenophon for people to stumble upon after their deaths.
Very enjoyable, though perhaps the suspense fizzles out a little bit at the end.
AND HERE IS WHY IT MIGHT MAKE MY BEST LIST.
Some will think it’s very silly to begin making my “Best of 2013 ” list now, but I just noticed there are only four books on my list that were published in 2013 (see sidebar).
They are brilliant books.
I also love them.
But this was the year I intended to read more contemporary books.
All right, I haven’t. I have read more than 100 books, but only 13 books published this year. I do start a lot of new books and put them aside, like Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic. I am picky, picky. If I don’t like a contemporary book, which I seldom do, I reread War and Peace (which I’m doing now).
But I’d better get hopping if I want 10, or even five, new books on my Best of ’13 list.
I’ve just decided that Taylor’s book WILL make my list. It’s brilliant, and that has to be enough. I can’t love everything.
What new books do you recommend?
We’re not big readers of new books, are we?
I don’t read many new (published within the last 5 years) either, preferring the classics and still catching up on books written 20 or 30 years ago. One I suggest for your list is David Benioff’s City of Thieves, in which the two young men are using their wits to survive in Leningrad under siege. It is a brilliant use of a historical background, with two well-developed characters in the foreground.
No, we’re not. I rarely enjoy a new books, but I might like this one – it has Beverley Nichols, with whose books I am currently enamoured; and I did like Taylor’s Bright Young Things very much. So thank you for the glowing recommendation! I am no good at all about contemporary lit – I read some Will Self, but still haven’t attacked Umbrella which I was given a year ago. Go figure – I just like old books!!
Nancy, I’ll see if my library has a copy of City of Thieves. It’s embarrassing if I can’t find 10 new books I like when that was my (forgotten) goal.
Karen, I think you would very much enjoy The Windsor Faction. Taylor is such a good writer. I had to read the Author’s Note first, but you won’t since it’s your history! Let me know what I should read by Beverley Nichols, I know he wrote a lot, but all I’ve read are his gardening books.
Well, I haven’t read a lot of Beverley (though I have demanded several volumes from the local library – they are having to dig them out of the vaults, I think!) Anyway, his autobiography “Twenty-Five” is fabulous, and so is “Crazy Pavements” the first book of his I read. I’m very excited because I just found out he wrote murder mysteries – the third in the series is on Mount TBR, and the first two are winging their way through the post from Amazon!! (Yes, I really shouldn’t be buying any more books, but it’s the only way I can get to read them……)
Thanks for the recommendations! I’ll look for them.
I did really like this review — I read it before tonight. It made me want to read the book. I wonder if this D.J. Taylor is the same person who wrote a biography of Thackeray. Do you know?
I enjoyed reading your review and it reminded me about how good this book is. Anyone looking for a conventional “alternate history” book will be disappointed (Nazis invading Britain etc), but as very well-written period novel it works extremely well. Alas, the review on Amazon UK seem to be written by people expecting a roller-coaster thriller, and who find this rather elegant tale, slow and boring.
I don’t know how you feel about Lionel Shriver. Her book Big Brother took me a while to get into and I complained about it for a while, but suddenly I was fascinated but the writer’s courage to pull of a gimmick at one point in the book. It totally worked, in my opinion, and the book haunted me for a few weeks after. It’s not her best but it’s one that is pretty good. The other book I read this week was The Empty Room by Lauren B Davis. No book has broken my heart like this one. I read a lot of books about solitude, my favorite writer is Anita Brookner who is the queen of writing solitude itself, but this book, set in Toronto in this decade was so so sad I couldn’t believe it. The writing itself isn’t at the height it could be, I’m also very picky.. if I don’t like the writing I kill it. But The Empty Room has some very good passages. Both published in 2013. I don’t read many contemporary books either. Right now I’m with Penelope Mortimer.
Ellen, yes, that is Taylor. He is multi-talented: biographies and fiction.
Tom, you’re right, this may not be “alternate” enough for some. Connie Willis’s Blackout is a realistic historical novel with one made-up component (time-traveling Oxford observers who get stuck there and worry about changing the past), and I liked this book for the same reason I liked that. Why Taylor’s book would not appeal to the Amazon readers is beyond me, but I’m sure you’re right. It isn’t a thriller!
Luisa, I read Big Brother, and she is an excellent writer! though I didn’t completely love the book for various reasons. But we’ve all read it in my family. We all got hooked…. Haven’t heard of The Empty Room and will see if my library has it. Penelope Mortimer is so good: why don’t I just read her instead?:)
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