Title: Widow Land
Author: C.J. Carey
Publisher: Quercus, 2021
C. J. Carey is the pseudonym of Jane Thynne, British novelist, journalist and broadcaster who has also written a number of fictional historical series.
Widow Land is heavily reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale but there are significant differences. Instead of being set in a dystopian American future it looks back to an alternative outcome in real-life history where an alliance is made between England and Germany, and World War II is avoided. Real personages are referenced from history among both the English and German aristocracy and including politicians at the time who supported Nazi beliefs. In Widow Land Prince Edward and his American socialite wife Wallis Simpson will be crowned King and Queen of England.
In the early days of the Alliance every female over the age of 14 has to present for Classification. At the bottom of the new caste system are the Friedas who live in a decrepit area outside the city called Widowland. The Friedas are ‘the widows and spinsters over 50 who had no children, no reproductive purpose, and who did not serve a man’.
The main character, Rose, is a Geli, an elite, and the book begins with her unthinking acceptance of the new regime, protected by her status, endeavouring constantly to stay within the protocols demanded of them all. She accepts without question the caste system that relegated all women to rules which affected every second of their lives ranging from how many calories they received daily to denial of any rights over their baby’s lives.
Though the Gelis are more protected than the others they are also little more than playthings for the mainly older SS men who pick and choose among them for potential girlfriends or wives. The threat of demotion hangs consistently over their heads should they fail to find a man willing to marry them. They are also unable to keep any child born of their liaisons.
Rose works for the Culture Ministry editing the work of the great writers ranging from Virginia Woolf to the Greek and Roman classics. Her task is to rewrite anything that presents women as strong and independent, preferably replacing those characters with representatives of the Protectorate.
She is sent to to Widowland to question a group of older women living there suspected of writing the slogans taken from literary classics mysteriously appearing all over London. When she arrives she discovers the women she is sent to interview are living lives of quiet rebellion, and a life more genuine than her own, despite the strictures under which they labour.
At the same time she has her own secret. Alone in her room each night she has begun to explore writing, something forbidden to all women. Initially motivated by the stories of dragons she makes up for her beloved niece Hanna she keeps a journal, writing fragments mainly detailing private and daily aspects of her life. The introspection and honesty it allows slowly strips away her unthinking view and she begins to see more clearly what is around her.
The novel is well crafted, particularly in how it depicts how Rose moves from blind acceptance to awareness that, despite her hitherto precious privileged status, her life prospects are severely crippled and her future uncertain. Also how that realisation comes from the illegal texts she works with and her own writing practice. The weaving of historical reality in an imaginative framework is particularly skilfully done.
Widow Lands is both entertaining and informative, and chilling in the way it exposes the very real methods used by many in power in the past to manipulate the way we think.
Reviewed by: Rhonda Cotsell, July 2021
Ballarat Writers Book Review Group