“Nothing I know matters more / than what never happened,” writes the Scottish poet John Burnside (2011: 49). The contemporary significance of conscious fictions about the past—that it “matters more” than what is known to have taken place; that it “matters more” than anything else—is the subject of Catherine Gallagher’s new book, which finds counterfactual thinking important for examining both the formal organization of the historical novel and the problem of historical redress.

The counterfactual mode might seem an unexpected focus of such sustained attention as it receives in this substantial book. Counterfactual writing has a faintly disreputable ring to it, perhaps because it accommodates so readily the dubious political preoccupations of cranks and revisionists: one of Gallagher’s main case studies is a body of writing that imagines alternative outcomes for the American Civil War. Or, perhaps because it is...

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