By Alexander Wallace
I have talked before of strange ways of finding books. Now, I must praise BookBub, a book deal email service proffered to me by my mother. It was in a BookBub email that I learned of Daniel Quinn, and his alternate history novel After Dachau. To my great pleasure, in reading that email I found what is, in full seriousness, one of the best alternate history novels I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
You can probably guess from the title that After Dachau is another Nazi victory story. Beyond that, though, Quinn has done something very interesting and very original. That is what makes writing about After Dachau so difficult; to reveal too much of what is going on will inevitably spoil the pleasure of discovery for the reader. Avoid reading the Amazon summary; it was written with a current zeitgeist in mind and reveals what would have more emotional impact had the reader not known it.
The book starts with your main character and narrator, Jason Tull, becoming fascinated with instances of people seemingly being reincarnated in the bodies of others, sometimes after accidents. He takes up a job at an institution researching such occurrences, and is sent to several places on different continents to investigate people who purport to be reincarnated; there are brief sequences in Johannesburg and Tunis.
Jason is thrown for a loop when he is assigned to the case of Mallory, a woman who, after a car crash, wakes up with an entirely different set of memories. Jason rushes to Oneonta, New York, to investigate what she says. The two spend much time around each other, talking through her memories and navigating the fact that her current family is not the one she remembers.
Everything after that is too vital to discuss in a review like this. What I can say with certainty is that Quinn has handled the creation of his alternate world with a care and a cleverness many alternate history writers have never matched. Quinn is very good at choosing what details to give you; they are details that sound like artistic license or creative description at first, but end up meaning much more later in the book. He pieces together this world in the manner of a master craftsman, and on at least one occasion it made my jaw drop.
The book is given a real human element to it by the characterizations of Jason and Mallory. Jason is something of a social climber, a middle class professional without much accomplishment and a desire for something more. He is something of the fifties conventional man, the professional who tries to find happiness in white-collar work. He is confronted with Mallory, someone who is very much not made in that mold; she has very different ideas of where she is in the world, and the dissonance between the two provides much of the thematic spine of the novel.
This is a book about memory, personal and historical. To put it in a way that doesn’t spoil too much, it interrogates what about the past that we remember, and what we want to remember. It is about the unpleasant things that were done to create the world we live in, and how we refuse to confront those unpleasant truths.
I know that this isn’t the most satisfying review, given how vague it is, but I entreat the reader: if you are at all interested in probing what alternate history can do, read this book now. This is the sort of book that the genre needs more of: the daring and the bold and the intensely human. After Dachau is all of that and more, and it is something we should take care to study.