The Alteration, by Kinglsey Amis
It took me a while to get the point of this book. At least as I read it, there are more than one way to take the title of this book, and the first of those layers of meaning that will become evident to the reader is the way that the author has made an alteration to history to create an alternate history where Martin Luther didn’t go Catholic and so neither did Henry VIII, which had some serious changes to history but which make this account a minor key of our history that is told with some genuine humor. By the time the reader gets to the second chapter of the book, it becomes increasingly aware that there is another alteration that is meant besides that of the author’s own alternate history elements, and that is the matter of castration, which is spoken of within the novel by the titular euphemism, as the hero of the novel spends most of the novel trying to avoid being castrated. It is striking just how bluntspoken the author is about this awkward and uncomfortable matter and others that occur during the course of the book. This certainly is not the usual way that a reader becomes familiar with the work of Kingsley Amis, who is more known for his trenchant novels about the troubled relationship of edge lords with the world around them.
The alteration begins with an introduction that places this obscure book in a larger context of novels that deal with the subject of Time Romance and point to its legitimacy despite its lack of popularity. Then we get to the novel itself, which takes about two hundred pages and tells a deceptively straightforward story about a young boy who is dealing both with his first crush on the daughter of the New England ambassador as well as with the looming reality of his castration to preserve a beautiful male soprano voice. His own uncertainty about his destiny and the refusal of a priest who is having an affair with his mother (and who ends up being castrated himself and killed in their house after he has run away) leads to complications, and his attempts to escape to New England are ultimately unsuccessful even if it leads him to finding new friends. Amis is unsentimental throughout in dealing with his family as well as the civil and religious authorities of this strange world where England remains Catholic, and the novel is certainly a good one.
If this novel is certainly an usual one in the body of work of the author, it is a compelling novel and one that is rather self-aware. Within the book, among much other content, there is a discussion about whether it is heretical for people to write alternate histories about men in the high castle or societies not too different from our own. The author (and the editor of this work who wrote the very excellent forward) are quite right to note that there are seditious purposes inherent in alternate history, something I engage in from time to time, because it views our history as being continent and not foreordained, and to believe that there are options about how a world may be that is different from how it is makes for autocrats who are unhappy about those who might imagine a world without their tyranny, which is automatically going to be problematic at best and criminal at worst. To be sure, I do not necessarily like a work because it is an alternate history, but this book is a very compelling and interesting novel that uses alternate history in a worthwhile manner.