Catherine McCullagh – Power and Obsession

Big Sky Publishing, Australia, 2024
Cover and internal design Think Productions

Catherine McCullagh has stayed in the realm of alternative historical fiction with this latest, thoroughly absorbing tale, set in a presumptive occupied Britain from 1940 to the end of the Second World War.

Barbie spoke to Catherine McCullagh about Power and Obsession

She has asked what a Nazi occupied Britain might be like. Who would be sympathisers? Who would be collaborators and why and how? Who would resist and how? In doing so, she takes her readers well beyond the plot of a novel, introducing troubling moral questions we all ponder.

Emilia Shaw, heroine of the story, is recruited into a resistance network by the redoubtable Robert Duclos, bookstore owner. With her two new colleagues, Miss Rose Miller and Mr Ncholas Rothwell, all of them fluent German speakers, she is sent to work in the secretariat of the SS headquarters under the commander of operations in Britain, SS General Oskar Voigt. They all have the required qualities of quiet anonymity, although Emilia is also possessed of an icy beauty that Voigt finds irresistible.

As the war and the occupation continue, Emilia and her fellows are tasked with increasingly dangerous drops and deliveries, along with information gathering from Voigt that puts her in frequent mortal danger. She is under constant surveillance and must always be alert to threats from all directions. Nobody is above suspicion.

Meanwhile the erstwhile King, Edward Duke of Windsor, who abdicated so that he could marry his beloved Wallis Simpson, is in high favour with the Nazi regime. He has cosied up to them in the past and now finds himself in a position where he thinks he can return to the throne and bring Mrs Simpson along as Queen – her dearest desire. Other members of the British aristocracy are equally compromised.

Powerful personalities vie for our attention in this book. Juxtaposed against the ruthless but charismatic Nazi General and the brutal and deeply unattractive Colonel Morser, we see Brendan O’Connor, an Irish policeman who becomes Voigt’s head of security. For much of the book we find ourselves wondering which side he is really on. And Emilia is similarly conflicted about this issue.

This is just one of the very interesting issues in this book. Here is the place where the demarcation lines between collaboration and expediency, compliance and secret resistance blur. If one of our purported heroes or heroines must engage in behaviour they would normally see as morally reprehensible, do we condemn them? Or do we try to put ourselves in their invidious position and excuse almost anything as the means that justify the ends?

Catherine McCullagh writes of human psychology with perspicacity and compassion. She tells complex stories of morality and human nature whilst at the same time engaging her readers in situations they can grasp. She uses her considerable knowledge of British wartime history to manufacture a fictional world any of us can imagine ourselves inhabiting.

Thus it is that we easily understand the difficulties Emilia and her fellows experience under this occupation. We see her in extremis so often and fear for her welfare, and so when she seems to be developing a kind of affection and admiration for the very nasty General Voigt, we cannot take it entirely amiss. There’s a kind of Stockholm syndrome at work here, a natural inclination for survival.

The author so deftly intertwines the facts of history with her posited world, that we happily accept the suppositions she makes and the filling in of ‘history’ with her rich and absorbing fiction. This is a solid read, which at no time lags.

We hurtle from danger to danger with our protagonists, always hoping that their wits will suffice to defeat an enemy we know from both recorded history and their portrayal in this fiction, to be utterly without compunction.

A nice touch is Catherine McCullagh’s portrayal of the English national character in this story, where so much compromise and loss is experienced. The resistance cells fight on in the face of terrific personal danger and the ‘everyman’ is seen to, for the most part, stand firmly behind them and their much valued ‘British way of life’.

Emilia is a worthy heroine who also refuses to be bowed after the occupation and the end of the war, by those who were not in the country to fight the invaders, the war investigators who challenged so many good people in their dogged pursuit of war criminals. Sadly, we do see that the worst criminals of this sort often have a way of dodging responsibility for their crimes. Then and now.

There is much to keep us philosophising well after we finish this novel, and thankfully, the story is not yet at an end. The author promises us at least two follow up novels, which may satisfy our need for justice – or not, who knows? Well worth the wait, of course.

Thank you to Big Sky Publishing for my review copy and to Catherine for such satisfying conversations about ideas and so many possibilities for tackling the imponderable.