Liberation Square by Gareth Rubin - book review: Meticulous research, a rich layer of authentic detail and an intelligent imagining of a dark, dangerous and disturbing social and political landscape

Liberation Square by Gareth Rubin
Liberation Square by Gareth Rubin
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Imagine a Berlin-style wall running through the streets of London, with Checkpoint Charlie slap bang in the middle of Piccadilly Circus…

This is the chilling image that lies at the heart of a dark, dystopian 1950s Britain conjured up by author and journalist Gareth Rubin in a stunning debut novel which portrays a defeated United Kingdom carved in two by the superpowers of Soviet Russia and the United States.

Liberation Square is a masterpiece of fact and fiction construction; an excitingly original premise which uses nightmare alternative history as the backdrop for a murder mystery bristling with intrigue, menace and suspense.

Visions of post-war Britain under the rule of victorious Nazis have been explored in several novels – including Robert Harris’s Fatherland and C.J. Sansom’s Dominion – but Rubin takes readers in a gripping and fascinating new direction.

After a disastrous D-Day, Britain was quickly occupied by Nazi Germany but rescue came in the shape of the Americans, who now control the nation north of a wall stretching between Bristol and Norfolk, plus the Western quarter of London, and the rest of the southern portion of the country is now in the iron grip of the Soviets.

It's 1952 and gun-toting, stony-faced Soviet troops control British streets. For seven years, families in the Soviet region have had to fall into line with their Communist rulers, living under a surveillance state and a constant cloud of suspicion.

On the Russian side of London’s wall, Jane Cawson – a teacher still trying to find a post under the new regime – makes an unplanned visit to her husband Nick’s medical practice only to find him inexplicably absent.

They have only been married for five months and she is both shocked and upset when she detects the perfume worn by his former wife, Lorelei, the star of propaganda films for the new Marxist regime, in his consulting room.

In a fit of anger and passion, Jane rushes to confront them at Lorelei’s flat, but is horrified to discover the glamorous actress’s dead body in the bath. When the police and agents from the covert National Security arrive, Jane finds herself caught up in what appears to be a dark conspiracy.

Her husband is arrested for murder and there is an added emotional complication for Jane… Nick and Lorelei’s 14-year-old daughter Hazel has now been placed in her care. Desperate to clear Nick’s name, Jane must risk the attention of the brutal secret police as she follows a trail of corruption right to the highest levels of the state.

And she might find she never really knew her husband at all…

Liberation Square is a superbly plotted and atmospheric thriller, harnessing the fear and paranoia of life under an authoritarian Marxist dictatorship with a mystery full of labyrinthine twists and turns.

This is a Britain that becomes frighteningly plausible because it is rooted in real history and real events, and includes a cast of familiar figures like Winston Churchill, now part of a Free Europe movement, and Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess who have been awarded top government posts.

Powerful storytelling and an impressive evocation of a closed society, in which neighbours spy on neighbours and the secret police control all aspects of daily life, is breathtakingly depicted and adds a frisson of blood-curdling intensity to Jane’s desperate hunt for the truth.

Meticulous research, a rich layer of authentic detail and an intelligent imagining of a dark, dangerous and disturbing social and political landscape make this a standout dystopian chiller-thriller from an exciting new novelist.

(Michael Joseph, hardback, £12.99)