The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (1976) 205 p.

The Alteration is an alternative history novel by Kingsley Amis which hinges on the premise that the Reformation failed, with Martin Luther becoming reconciled to the Catholic Church and indeed becoming Pope. The Western world remains under the influence of a repressive Catholic regime and scientific progress has been stymied. The story itself revolves around Hubert Anvil, a 10-year-old choir boy, who has the most wonderful singing voice heard in generations; a voice which must, by the reasoning of the celibate clergy, be preserved by Hugo’s castration – the second “alteration” of the title.

The Alteration compares itself early and openly to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, with Hubert and his dormitory friends huddling around a candle after lights out to read a fictionalised version of that very book – an alternate history which, of course, posits that the Reformation succeeded. (In real life The Man in the High Castle depicts a world in which the Allies lost World War II.) But while I criticised The Man in the High Castle for not having much of a plot, relying on the intrigue of its divergent world to get the reader through, The Alteration has a fairly good one. The prospect of Hugo’s castration – in which, as a minor, he has no say – is opposed by several of his friends and family members, and the book becomes a struggle to see whether or not they will be successful in standing up to the hierarchy of the Church. In the final sixty pages or so, as Hugo takes his fate into his own hands, it becomes a fairly captivating fugitive story. I found myself somewhat bored through the first half of the novel – Catholic stories always do that to me for some reason – but by the novel’s climax I was genuinely involved and hoping against hope that Hugo would succeed. I suppose the threat of castration is a fairly gut-felt plight for a male reader.

Without giving away the ending, I’ll say that the outcome of the novel was frustrating – something of a deus ex machina – although I suppose in the context of the story, which speaks at length about faith and God and God’s will, “divine intervention” is less irritating than it would have been in other stories.

The Alteration is an objectively good novel; it has a richness and a depth to it which largely slipped past my analytical abilities, dealing with piety and the human condition and the worth of art, and there are also a lot of subversive references to the 1970s I didn’t get until I read about them after (I didn’t realise, for example, that the Pope was Harold Wilson). It was also slow to get going, and a little too on the nose in some parts – the Machiavellian discussion the Pope has with his closest advisors towards the end of the novel was particularly clunky. Nonetheless, it’s a solid alternate history novel, and certainly one I can recommend to fans of the genre.

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