REVIEW: Farthing, Jo Walton

Tor, 2006

A copy of Farthing sits on a rusty surface
Farthing, Jo Walton, Tor, 2006, paperback

At the very top of the front cover of Farthing, above the author’s name, we read that this book is by the author of the Hugo and Nebula award-winning Among Others. Among Others is Walton’s most recent and arguably most well-known book to date, and, while I haven’t read it, is almost the entire reason I picked up Farthing at all. I didn’t know before finishing the book that Farthing itself was nominated for a Nebula itself, not to mention a Quill Award, a John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and a Sidewise Award. Having read it all, I can see why.

Farthing is the first of a trilogy set in an alternate history of Britain in which Churchill was ousted during the bloody, hopeless early years of the Second World War, and peace was made with Hitler and the Third Reich. The architects of this ‘Peace with Honour’ are a group within the Conservative Party known as ‘the Farthing set’. The set revolves socially around the eponymous Farthing, a stately home in Hampshire belonging to Lord and Lady Eversley, chief movers within the set. (Compare and contrast our modern day Chipping Norton set, the cosy gang of politicians, media types and celebrities who make their homes in posh Chipping Norton, including our current Prime Minister and his wife.)

The immediate plot centres on the suspicious death at Farthing of Sir James Thirkie, a prominent member of the set, and the book begins chugging away on familiar, Christie-esque whodunnit lines. The narrative alternates between two perspectives: that of Scotland Yard Inspector Carmichael, and that of the Eversleys’ married daughter, Lucy Kahn. Lucy, at the centre of the imbroglio due to her familiarity with the Farthing set and her marriage to the prime suspect, David Kahn (suspect by virtue of Jewishness), clues the reader in to details honest, wealth-sceptical Inspector Carmichael will never grasp – which, for as long as you believe this is a typical murder mystery, might have you tearing your hair out.

Both Lucy and Carmichael are marginalised by the far right politics of alternate Europe – Lucy for her loving marriage to Jewish and bisexual Kahn, and Carmichael for his own homosexuality. It is the circumstances their marginalisation forces them into, and the decisions they then make, that seperate and define them. Moreover, the book illustrates how the far right defines people by their traits and then coerces them into action based on that definition. While Walton’s Britain doesn’t yet have the camps of the Third Reich, the way that outcast characters are restricted by the budding fascism palely echoes and foreshadows those fences.

Walton skilfully evokes not only the period but also the particular socioeconomic niche inhabited by the Farthing set. As I read, particularly in the relationship between Lucy and her late brother Hugh, I felt the spectre of Jessica Mitford at my shoulder.

Despite this, her voice quickly became grating. Although perfectly characterised and by no means an objective flaw, her gossip magazine testimonal-style narration contrasts strongly and not to its advantage against Carmichael’s more conventional, third-person chapters. It undisputably serves Walton’s purpose (to make the reader underestimate Lucy, just as everyone in the book does), but arguably doesn’t work on an aesthetic level. In this, it matches the rest of the book, the writing style of which never rises above ordinary.

In the end, however, it is not the writing style which makes Farthing a worthwhile read, but its themes. Walton’s sexual politics – with Lucy’s Athenians, Macedonians and Romans – are utterly charming, and made me forgive much. Her nuanced portrayal of Jewishness in an anti-semitic Britain was pitch perfect. And as a narrative about the perniciousness of cruelty and the depth of darkness in the hearts of loved ones and nations alike, Farthing hits its mark squarely. If you put this book down feeling safe in the real world, where Hitler was defeated and fascism dwindled into obscurity for the better part of a century, then you’re doing it wrong. Despite being released eight years ago, Farthing could not be sharper than today. It ought to leave you shaken by an insight into the evil that lurks, even now as in all our history, below the untroubled surface of daily life, awaiting only minor disturbance to bring it into the light.

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