Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Winston's War by Michael Dobbs

Winston's War is a masterful blending of imagination and compelling fact that places the reader at the right hand of the most momentous events in our history.

Saturday 1 October 1938. Two men meet. One is elderly, the other in his twenties. One will become the most revered man of his time, and the other known as the greatest of traitors.

Winston Churchill met Guy Burgess at a moment when the world was about to explode. Now in his astonishing new novel, Michael Dobbs throws brilliant fresh light upon Churchill's relationship with the Soviet spy and the twenty months of conspiracy, chance and outright treachery that were to propel Churchill from outcast to messiah and change the course of history.
Winston's War opens in October 1938. Winston Churchill is a man on the outer with his political companions, Hitler has just annexed part of Czechoslovakia and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain has just returned home from talks with the Fuhrer declaring that he has obtained 'peace with honour, peace for our times'.

We are given several different view points throughout the novel, starting with Churchill and Chamberlain and their political allies as well as the barber who goes about the business of cutting and shaving whilst the very important men go about their business almost oblivious to the barber.

Another is from Guy Burgess, a man who worked as a journalist for the BBC, and whose paths crossed with those of Churchill on several occasions. I don't want to give too much away about Burgess, but he lived a very notorious life, and as a reader you are never quite sure where his loyalties lie, other than to himself. He is a degenerate character but completely key to this fictionalisation of the events in the twenty month period covered by the novel.

One of the other perspectives is from a post mistress in Bournemouth. I must confess that as I read the novel I wasn't sure about this final storyline as I couldn't see how it connected to the main plot, but in the end the author I didn't need to be worried due to a couple of different events. Whilst many of the interconnections between the various characters are obvious others are more subtle, but in the end the connections are there.

As much as this is a novel about the momentum towards and the beginning of WWII, including leaving the people of Poland and Czechoslovakia to defend themselves despite promised assistance, it is also a novel about the political machinations of the British parliament. There are shady deals, immoral behaviour, spies, betrayal, blackmail and misdirection to the British people through the newspapers of the day. The constant battle to maintain power and to keep political enemies out of positions of power dominates, even when those enemies might be parliamentary colleagues from your own party! One of the more interesting examples is around a Scottish MP, Duchess of Atholl, Katharine Stewart-Murray, who vehemently opposed Chamberlain's policy of appeasement and who found herself forced out of Parliament.

One of the most striking things about this novel for me was the reminder of how much there is that is not necessarily commonly known even when we are only a couple of generations away from the events, particularly for those of us who do not profess to be scholars of a particular period. For example, some of the most enduring images of WWII are the bombed out homes in London from the Blitz, or say the evacuation from Dunkirk, the damage done in France, Belgium and Holland. It is easy to forget that from the time that war was declared against Germany, there were many months where there was very little actual fighting, although there was plenty of political infighting going on.

I should say that this book was not an easy read. At times it was dense with the political machinations and plotting, more political thriller than my more standard historical fiction maybe, but it was definitely worth taking the time to read.

As anyone who has read my blog for any length of time will probably be aware, I really, really do not like to read a series out of order. It may be something of a surprise then to find that this is the third book in the Winston Churchill series by Michael Dobbs that I have read, despite the fact that it is the first book in the series. I have now read books 1, 2 and 4. The reason this happened is that I was originally given review copies of both Never Surrender and Churchill's Triumph from Sourcebooks a couple of years ago. I always intended to go back and read the other books in the series, but every time I borrowed this book from the library I had to take it back unread. I was determined that this time, I was going to read it, and now I have. I should confess though it is overdue by more than a week at the library so that I could finally read it! The third book is on request and I hope to read it soon.

I read this book as part of the War Through the Generations challenge hosted by Anna and Serena.

6 comments:

  1. This sounds like a very complex book, with a lot going on plot wise. I am glad you enjoyed it and that you were able to continue in the series, even it it was out of order. Great review, this book might make a good read for my husband. Thanks!

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  2. great review and it's going on my tbr list. wow!

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  3. Thanks for letting me know that it's dense but to keep reading. I'm adding this to my to-read (some day) list, too. And I'll get this review on the challenge blog ass soon as I can!

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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