Fatherland, by Robert Harris

Fatherland, by Robert Harris book coverGenre: Alternate History
Publisher: Harper Collins
Published: 1993
Reviewer Rating: five stars
Book Review by Jeff Edwards

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The year is 1964. Germany has reigned supreme since Hitler’s victory in World War II, and Berlin is gearing up to celebrate Der Fuhrer’s seventy-fifth birthday. Homicide investigator Xavier March is called out of bed early one morning after a corpse is found on the muddy bank of Lake Havel. When he discovers that the dead man was once a high-ranking Nazi, March is told to turn the case over to the Gestapo, and he realizes that this is anything but a routine investigation. Continuing his inquiries against orders, March uncovers a chilling conspiracy designed to erase all evidence of an unbelievable atrocity — something so inhuman, even the powerful Third Reich might not survive once the truth is revealed.

Divorced, still trying to be a father to a son who longs to join the Hitler Youth organization, Xavier March is the antithesis of the obedient German citizen — a disillusioned Sturmbannfuhrer driven to find the truth at any cost. Although his son calls him “an asocial,” March is able to elicit help in his investigation from his office-mate Max Jaeger, his old U-boat comrade Rudolf Halder, and a young American journalist named Charlotte Maguire. March’s most mysterious ally is Artur Nebe, head of the Reich Kriminalpolizei — a man who understands that knowledge is power. “You’re not telling the truth, are you? Or at least, not all of it,” Nebe says to March. “That’s good.”

Published in 1992, Fatherland has been compared to Martin Cruz Smith’s “Gorky Park,” and to the work of John le Carre. If Ian Fleming and George Orwell had ever collaborated, this is the kind of novel that they would have co-written — a thriller laced with pulse-pounding intrigue, set within the confines of a soot-streaked bureaucracy, a paranoid and fearful society where children show more loyalty to the State than to their own parents. Winston Smith from “1984” would feel right at home in Harris’ novel.

What else can one say about Fatherland after showering the book with praise and urging others to read it? Its plot, pacing, characters, dialogue, and impeccable research are all above reproach.

If forced to find fault with the novel, one might say that March’s investigation uncovers a dark part of recorded human history, and so the reader sees through the mystery while March is struggling to understand the evidence he has collected. Still, by presenting March’s findings piece by piece, Harris forces readers to reconsider Nazi atrocities as if for the first time. Paradoxically, by presenting facts and authentic documents in the guise of fiction, Harris makes history come alive. Fatherland was Robert Harris’ first novel, and remains a remarkable achievement.

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