Reviewer: Sarah Bower
What We Thought: To be honest, my involvement with Guy Saville’s dystopic alternative Nazi Afrika is a bit accidental. I would not normally pick up a book with a black and silver livery, a hero with a macho moniker like Burton Cole and a quite breath-taking number of things being shot at, blown up and smashed to pieces in worryingly creative ways. I’m far too much of a girl. However, I was invited by The Historical Novels Review to review the first in this sequence of novels, The Afrika Reich, published in 2011 but currently on special offer with various online outlets in the run-up to the publication of The Madagaskar Plan. To my surprise, I absolutely loved it, so was keen to see this sequel as soon as possible, and I haven’t been disappointed.
Although The Madagaskar Plan is a sequel, and features many characters who first appeared in The Afrika Reich, it works perfectly well as a stand-alone read. There is a useful prologue which gives a concise explanation of Saville’s alternative world, as well as a scholarly author’s note which relates the novel’s history to the real history behind it. While some elements of the story follow on from the first book, others run in parallel, or prequel.
The action is high-octane, but don’t let that fool you. This is multi-layered story-telling of great sophistication. The plotting, while complex, is never difficult to follow, and the pace is perfect, breathless page-turners interspersed with more thoughtful and lyrical passages. The book is packed with wonderful characters. I have a particular fondness for Burton Cole’s nemesis, Walter Hochburg, governor of Kongo – sadistic, but stylish with it and redeemed by a terrific intellect and a liking for Schubert and butterscotch. His sidekick, Kepplar, is so deliciously camp he might have stepped straight out of The Producers. Unusually for a writer in this genre, Saville also knows how to create strong female characters, most notably Cole’s touchingly courageous lover, Madeleine, and her redoubtable ally, Jacoba, who, even while enslaved in an abattoir, manages to affect a glorious snobbery.
The novel takes place in April 1953. The Allies capitulated after Dunkirk in 1940, and Adolf Hitler, about to celebrate his 64th birthday, rules an empire which covers half the globe and whose economic powerhouse is Afrika, with its rich agricultural land and mineral wealth. There has been no Holocaust, but Europe’s Jews have been forcibly resettled in Madagaskar, where revolt is brewing against the brutal governor, Odilo Globocnik (one of the characters Saville has imported from real history, who is ‘credited’ with pitching the idea of extermination camps to Himmler) The United States maintains a queasy neutrality under a president who owes his election to the Jewish lobby. (As Globocnik remarks at one point, “’Americans draw their red lines…then do nothing.’” Ouch.)
Into this physical, moral and metaphorical swamp steps ex soldier and foreign legionnaire, Cole, returned home at the beginning of the novel from an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hochburg, which is the main plot of The Afrika Reich, to find the pregnant Madeleine has disappeared. His search for her takes him to Madagaskar, to a second, devastating encounter with Hochburg and arch-villain Jared Cranley, Madeleine’s former husband.
Which brings me to the heart of this novel and everything which makes it surprising, moving and far more than a page-turning thriller. It is, in the end, a perceptive examination of human love in its many forms and one which, despite some exquisite scenes of tenderness and romance, eschews easy answers. For all its wild improbabilities this is a novel which excavates the deep truths of human nature with unflinching clarity.
A must read, for girls as well as boys. And anyone from HBO who’s looking for their next blockbuster mini-series.
You’ll enjoy this if you like: Thrillers, alternate history, anything with Nazis in it, Wilbur Smith but also Dickens, Tolstoy, Homer and the movies of Sergio Leone.
Avoid if you don’t like: violence, torture, complex plotting, anything with Nazis in it.
Listen to while reading: Wagner, Schubert’s ‘Hungarian Melody’, heavy metal, klezmer
Eat and drink while reading: (As long as you have a strong stomach!) Cold beer, VSOP cognac, hot pork sandwiches, ice cream sundaes with butterscotch sauce, Battenburg.
Available on Amazon
Sarah Bower is the author of two acclaimed historical novels. Her first, The Needle in the Blood, won the Susan Hill Award 2007 and was nominated for the Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction. Her second, Sins of the House of Borgia, was an international bestseller. She has also published a contemporary psychological thriller, Erosion, under the penname S. A. Hemmings. She is currently working on a novel entitled Love Can Kill People, Can’t It?, inspired by the history of 20th century Palestine. Her work has been translated into ten languages.