It’s 1976 and in the world of The Alteration England is dominated by a pervasive and morally twisted Catholic theocracy with a suspicion of but willingness to exploit science. Martin Luther became the radically reforming Pope, Germanian I, and the English succession skipped the man we know as Henry VIII and passed to Prince Stephen, the son of Catherine of Aragon and Henry’s elder brother, Arthur.
Hubert Anvil is a ten-year-old chorister with a sublime voice. The Church hierarchy, anxious to preserve it for the the glory of God, decrees Hubert should be turned into a castrato – an “alteration” that could bring him fame and fortune, but would also separate him permanently from an adult world he is curious to discover.
The narrative follows Hubert, his indecision and ultimate rebellion against the process. His stern, devout father heads a household where his wife Margaret counts herself lucky he discusses concerns in private and does not enforce his marital rights. Hubert is sympathetically drawn, and I found myself engaging fully with his sense of being trapped by his parents, his school and his society. For me, a weakness is that although he is supposed to be an old head on young shoulders, he acts more like a 16 or 17-year-old.
Amis’ beautifully written world bustles with altered technology and yet retains familiar historical details: express barouches, seven-hour transport between London and Rome, gaslight, photograms and airships yet ermines, silks, velvet, fustian, servants and apprentices. The language is historical and structured, such as you would find in C J Sansom or Ann Lyle, but it never disguises people’s motivations or emotions. And then there are the witty allusions to Jean-Paul Sartre as a Jesuit, Foot and Redgrave as enforcers and the Yorkshire pope who could be Harold Wilson.
Darker themes such as population control through war, separate development (aka apartheid) and brutal intransigence against any other orthodoxy than the official one are woven into the narrative as if they were perfectly natural.
The Alteration describes both the threat hanging over Hubert and the alteration in the historical timeline which symbolises the strangulation of the development of European civilisation. All Amis’ usual knack for character, incident and satire is there in The Alteration. The most disturbing thing is how convincing this alternative world is.