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Book cover for Jo Walton's Farthing shows a blue swastika, within the swastika shape is a house with one window lit up

Jo Walton is the Judy Dench of SFF. She’s a beloved grande dame of the genre; an award winner with an impressive back list of titles, who is highly thought of by many prominent critics. I have read plenty of blog posts that extolled the virtues of her fiction over the years. So, of course, despite having three of her books in my house I have been studiously ignoring her work up until now. What makes us readers collect multiple books by an author but then shy away from actually reading them? How do we cure ourselves of this bookish sickness?

As we all know, the only way to go from being a collector to a reader is to ignore any irrational guilt about how long you’ve had one work or another and just dive in wherever you like. Sorry "Tooth and Claw", your luck is out. I love dragons, but the book I wanted to read the most was the one that promised me a policeman who was gay. Which leads me to this posy about "Farthing", the first book in Walton’s “Small Change” trilogy, which I wrote just days after turning the book's last page. Judging by the speed of my typing fingers this was a choice well made.

"Farthing" is a piece of alternate history which takes the events of WWII and twists Britain’s political actions to bring about a different outcome. I know alternate history can sometimes be tricky; readers like to make sense of things and, even if readers don’t really need to know how history has been changed in order to understand the way a fictional work of alternate history works, not understanding that context can get between a reader and the reading experience. At least, this is true for me. I’m currently avoiding returning to "The Explosionist" because I know nothing about 1930s Edinburgh, and so find myself lost in an alternate version of that history, struggling to understand what is different. I probably don’t need to know exactly what is different, but it frustrates me that, knowing this is a piece of alternate history, I can’t tell fact from fiction. Entirely my own issue I know, but still a thing that keeps me from picking up a book and that often makes me wary of alternate history. Puzzles are fun, but puzzles that require research to answer will have to wait for a very specific turn in my reading rotation.

Thankfully, "Farthing" is based around a piece of Western history which I can outline quickly here for anyone unfamiliar with the events of WWII; although Britain considered signing a peace treaty with Germany during WWII, that appeasement project never came to pass. In reality, the allied forces (including Britain) went on to defeat Germany and win WWII, dismantling the Third Reich’s fascist control. In Walton’s novel the reverse is true. The British government has brought peace for their own country by stepping out of the war, which leaves the Germans in control of most of Europe. The Russians to fight on against Germany in a long, dragging war. Jews are still persecuted in any German controlled territories, and there are dire references to work camps. Other specific details about the war have been reversed or changed, and those with knowledge of the period will probably appreciate digging out those changes, but readers don’t really need to know more about the actual history to understand how the world of "Farthing" differs from the real, historical world. As I think I’ve said before, I spent a lot of time avoiding WWII classes and remember little of what I was taught, so I got all my extra period knowledge by putting terms like ‘Kursk’ into Wikipedia because I am a dork. I didn’t need to and could have gone on understanding the book without that extra knowledge. If I can get through this book without getting confused about where history ends and fiction begins I'm absolutely sure other readers can too.

So, what is "Farthing" if not a deep, detailed assessment of how the changes Walton has made to WWII history affect each military operation of the period? As Ana said when she talked about it with Aarti and Kelly (who are all to blame for me buying "Farthing" when I already had “Tooth and Claw” – you’re all responsible for my sad Victorian dragon book) it’s a whodunit; a country house mystery with an SFF alternate history twist. Yes, yet more evidence that crime and SF make such glorious bedfellows. It’s also the story of quite possibly the most charming married couple ever:

‘I gave his hand an extra squeeze just because I loved him, and he looked down at me, for once not picking up what I meant but thinking I wanted something. So I put up my face to be kissed, and that was how we snubbed stupid insensitive Angela Thirkie, who was married to the most boring man in England, who everyone knows didn’t even want her, he wanted her sister, by kissing like newlyweds on the lawn when in fact we’d been married eight whole months…’

Introducing Lucy and David Kahn: a love match if ever there was one. Along with Inspector Carmichael, David and Lucy (especially Lucy) are the stars of this book. All three characters are bright, responsive, humane, funny and charming. And they’re all either bi, gay or Jewish (in Lucy's case Jewish by marriage) in a book set in a WWII where Britain is becoming increasingly chummy with Hitler. I’m afraid you’ll need to prepare to see those stars cruelly shot from the sky and brought low.

The mystery of the novel revolves mostly around James Thirkie, ‘the most boring man in England’ as Lucy calls him, who is found dead in his room stabbed (but not killed by the stabbing) and impaled with a Jewish yellow star. Carmichael, called from Scotland Yard to investigate because of the deceased’s high status, is intelligent enough to spot that this looks like a fit up job designed to implicate Jewish anarchists, or possibly to frame David Khan as a Jewish anarchist. By the end of the novel, Carmichael is proved correct, but by discovering the truth he also comes to realise that sometimes the truth doesn’t matter at all to the people who matter.

Late on in the novel David says ‘…there are no fascists in Britain.’ It’s easy to see why David makes this kind of statement; he compares the treatment of Jews in Britain with their treatment in German occupied countries. While the British hold prejudices against Jewish people, they allow them more physical freedom and aren’t violent towards Jews like people are in Hitler’s German occupied territories. However, David is soon to be reminded that the British people’s passive-seeming prejudices are capable of being shaped into active fascism.

I think the fact that I just used the phrase ‘allow them’ to describe the treatment of Jews living in Britain says it all.Jewish people really are, as we see when the country begins to change towards the end of the novel, merely allowed their freedom, which can be taken away at any time by those in power. In the world of "Farthing", being a Jew means you are always viewed as something other than British by non-Jewish British citizens. All the characters in this novel set the Jewish people in their country apart by using the word ‘Jews’, not ‘British Jews’, to describe all the Jewish people living in Britain, even though, throughout history, Britain has often contained a long standing, or British born, Jewish generation (David himself was born in Britain). As Lucy says when the police search their flat without asking, ‘The standard is not to be better than the worst thing available. It’s not much to be able to say it’s better than the deal Hitler gives the Jews’ - but that’s what David, understandably due to his horror at Germany's treatment of Jews, has ended up aiming for.

David does so desperately want to think the best of England. His Jewish heritage and the fact that he was educated in France has left him feeling a British born outsider. Now, married into an aristocratic family where again he’ll always be an outsider, David has something of the aspirant in him. Lucy’s comment that ‘It was the French school trying so hard that made him feel so very passionately attached to things most people didn’t give two hoots about.’ suggests that David’s schooling encouraged him to see British culture as the epitome of civilisation, the ideal he will always be struggling to attain, even if he doesn’t much like some of the things associated with that ideal, like riding. The contrast between his drive for propriety and Lucy’s disregard for rules and customs that don’t fit her makes it plain just how differently people feel when they grow up inside of a culture to how they feel when they grow up looking in. The reader might also infer that David’s connection to the abused Jews of Europe means that he positions Britain, with its drive for peace, as the antithesis of German barbarism, and this is part of what has made him so attached to keeping up the ‘properness’ of Britain. David wants to think the best of Britain because to him, by settling peacefully with Germany, Britain presents a bastion of civilisation and the possibility of safety. This is bitterly ironic because the British peace with Germany leaves all Jewish people on the Continent in peril.

It seems that David’s attachment to all things British is also part of why ‘Behaving as well as possible to be a good counter-example to people’s beliefs about the Jews was one of the things he believed in most dearly’. I suspect that the word ‘well’ implicitly means ‘as politely and properly as the well-born British’ when David applies it. I expect we will see an increase in calls for civilised feminist protest, and lectures about the importance of setting an example, during the anniversary year of Emily Wilding Davidson’s death, which will be tiring, so I’m glad to see another Jewish character, Mrs Smollett, refute the argument that people can earn full equality and respect with good behaviour:

‘When the Nazis came, my customers did not say ‘Oh, do not persecute the Jews because Mrs. Szmolokiewitsz makes lovely pancakes and Mr. Szmolokiewitsz has willingly accepted his draft call into our army and their son Yusef is a doctor and their daughter Marya is at the conservatoire learning to play the piano.’ They said, ‘Oh, the Nazis are right, the Jews are greedy and treacherous and we have always hated them.’ When they smashed the windows of my restaurant, it was not the Germans who did it, it was the Poles. And one of them who was in the front with stones in his hand was a customer who I had served my special dumpling soup only the week before and given his little son a candle on his crème brulee because it was his birthday. But now his face was screwed up with hate and he would have smashed me as well as the window if I had not run.’

As well as being an outsider in his home country, David is somewhat of an outsider when it comes to the Jewish cultural situation. As a British Jew brought up in Britain and then schooled in France, he hasn’t (as far as I can make out) had to flee from totalitarianism. He’s also protected from disappointment by his father’s money, to an extent; he is able to make a career for himself initially because of financial backing from his family. David has never, as far as the reader knows, experienced the blow of being denied a particular kind of life because of prejudice. And then, when he marries Lucy, he sees the aristocracy admit him (even if they do so grudgingly). Of course, he’s aware of how awful the situation is for Jews living on the Continent, and he fights the good fight for Jews by lending Jews in Britain money to start businesses and helping to smuggle Jews from the Continent into Britain. However, although he experiences prejudice at the hands of Lucy’s relatives he is somewhat inculcated by money and the associations of Lucy’s class from what other Jews like Mrs Smollet have experienced. David has heard the stories, but he’s also probably grown up with a lot of cultural ideas from British culture about how to earn a place in that culture. And along the way, because he is an outsider to the British culture he adores, he has perhaps come to unconsciously accept Jews' separate status and to believe that they must earn the respect of their British countrymen in order to be treated better. Mrs Smollet calls him out when she says ‘You think we Jews in Poland, in Germany, in Hungary. We did something wrong? No. It doesn’t make any difference. It wasn’t our fault. It isn’t something it’s at all possible to control.’, explaining how his arguments may place the blame on the victims.

David isn’t the only one trying to believe the best of Britain. Ana mentions that ‘Inspector Carmichael thinks that if only he solves the mystery, everything will work itself out.’. The book also mentions a conversation Carmichael had with his lover Jack about a raid on men picking up men in London’s underground network ‘who had seen it as a sign that the laws against homosexuality where about to be enforced’, a notion which he doesn’t countenance. As an Inspector at the Yard, Carmichael must have seen the worst of humanity plenty of times, and mentions how ‘He had broken the law before – the police often had to, to do their jobs’; he is well aware of the politics of policing. Yet, he still keeps this belief that truth can prevail if only he handles things very carefully, and that injustice need not touch him if he is professional and outwardly acts correctly.

And then there’s Lucy, who puts forward perhaps the most modern viewpoint on British injustice. Unlike David, who tries to put a positive spin on much unconscionable behaviour, Lucy is well aware of how much cruelty and scandal can lie behind a British façade of propriety. However, she still doesn’t quite see how far towards prejudice and totalitarianism the peace with Germany has led Britain. In fact, she generally tries to laugh prejudice off as a silly foible of vulgar people. The reader can put some of that down to Lucy being a little bit out of the political scene that the rest of her family operate in, but Lucy’s inability to see the full consequences of the peace might also hint at the wider British public’s feeling that ‘this could never happen in England’; that there is something about British culture that makes us special and able to repulse fascism without its citizens even having to try hard. And this belief has allowed them to become rather less vigilant than necessary about making sure the country doesn't fall victim to fascist politicians. This sweet but rather unthinking attitude contains a relevant lesson for today’s Britain. The Right is persistent and deadly..

The end of both Lucy and Carmichael’s storylines broke my heart:

‘ “I love you,’ I said. ‘Are you frightened?”

“I’m terrified, but I love you too,” David said, and kind of nuzzled against my neck in that lovely way he has.

Then the train pulled into Southampton station.’

Lucy’s last lines just sound so portentous. If this were “Downton Abbey”, a final loving moment like that would mean they’d never make it past Southampton. Do they make it to Canada? Reader's will have to wait until "Ha'penny" to find out.

At the end of Carmichael’s story, he has an eye-opening encounter with his chief where he’s forced to compromise his integrity. Reading that was shattering, but for me the saddest part was his last confrontation with his colleague and friend Royston. The reader has spent a lot of time watching the easy banter between the two as they work on the case, and Royston’s daughter calls the Inspector ‘Uncle Carmichael’. So, it’s devastating to be reminded just how unknown Carmichael really is to Royston, and how much it must hurt Carmichael to know that he has to keep his life with Jack from this friend or risk seeing revulsion on Royston’s face. Royston is probably the secondary character I found most interesting after Daphne Normanby, because he’s a study in the little jabbing ways that people reassert their prejudices casually. His encounter with Lucy, where he calls her ‘miss’ and where she eventually realises he’s treating her as if she is not married at all, is a sharp, small detail that made Walton’s idea of a Britain not far from fascism come to life for me. I desperately want Carmichael to confront him with the truth about his relationship with Jack before the trilogy ends, but I doubt that, after Royston’s betrayal, they’ll have much to do with each other in the later books. And do I really want it anyway, knowing that Walton was potentially ruthless in the ending that she created for Lucy and David? I don’t want Carmichael physically hurt by a violent, homophobic society, so I probably retract my want.

Obviously I had feelings about the characters and arguments that "Farthing" includes, but what about the mystery which gives the novel its reason for being? Well, the mystery was the only downside of "Farthing" for me. Walton’s mystery is wrapped up with a couple of fortunate witness testimonies and, while that puts the solution beyond doubt, the sequence of events surrounding the murder is far from cleared up by these testimonies. This novel’s mystery element reminded me a lot of Dorothy L Sayers’ "Have His Carcase", where the sleuths have all the parts and possibilities of a solution in their hands but can’t work out how it fits together. Walton makes a more valiant effort than Sayers, at least proposing a full rundown of all the possible combinations of events which could have led to James Thirkie’s death. And Carmichael knows who killed him. It’s just that the complexity of her mystery set-up, designed to frustrate the police and to pleasantly keep the reader guessing, ends up frustrating its author’s ability to present a convincingly simple explanation. The way James Thirkie was killed, or perhaps persuaded to commit suicide, seemed unnecessarily complicated, and it did feel like bright, well-connected, well-planned people like Mark Normanby and Lady Eversley could have arranged something much easier. Perhaps this is the point – that everything was made so convoluted in order to stall the police until after the vote, rather than because this was the best plan the conspirators could come up with? If so, I think that probably should have been made explicit to stop the creation of this mystery plot from looking accidentally sloppy.

Oh, and I’ve got to spare a thought for the villains. The primary people involved were Lady Eversley, who is the archetype of the scheming political woman, described as a stalwart, bulldozing ‘battleship’, and who wields wider power by manipulating men into acting as she wishes. As I said in my post about "The Sarah Connor Chronicles", I’m cautious about analysing female characters just by looking at what stereotypical tropes they fit. However, as Lady Eversley is not developed much past this picture of her as the overbearing mother and wife, there’s not much getting away from this vision of her, and it’s annoying to see this stereotypical chain of ‘female’ - ‘firm’ - ‘powerful’ - ‘evil’ used to draw a villainess yet again. Alice Thirkie, the adulterous woman, is a well-worn murderess stereotype, and again she doesn’t get much extra characterisation. Mark Normanby, the gay man with a black heart, is harder to analyse. Is his evil tied up with his sexuality to an extent? I can see that Walton has balanced Normanby with positive gay and bisexual male characters in an attempt to avoid having readers draw a direct correlation between gay and evil, but I do wonder why, in a world full of straight male politicians, Mark Normanby, a gay politician, was chosen to be the one most directly linked to oppressing people. Perhaps Walton hopes to further Carmichael’s idea that there is one rule for the rich and one for the poor by showing Normanby living with an open secret while he continues to enforce laws making gay relationships illegal. Perhaps she wants to critique the idea that if members of disenfranchised groups enter power they will automatically improve the situation for their whole societal group, and explain that intersection cuts both ways? Either way, I think I’d have appreciated a little less mwahaha about his characterisation. I’d love to talk more about Mark, if anyone’s interested. I felt terribly sorry for his wife Daphne, especially when he clearly draws so much joy and power from eventually denying her a life and love. Perhaps there are some Daphne fans on the internet? Call me, maybe?

At times, "Farthing" was so prescient I was surprised I was reading a novel from nearly eleven year ago; people often talk about science fiction writers predicting future developments, but I’ve never seen Walton’s "Farthing" mentioned as an example of this (perhaps because it’s set in the past, not the future). She published a novel in 2002 which predicted an attempt to return identity cards to Britain (something which was talked about in the UK in 2006 but never came fully into action for British citizens). And our economic situation of the past few years provides ample opportunity for sly cause and effect narratives to creep in, which encourage people into prejudice. With the growing support for Far Right political parties, Tor’s decision to re-issue "Farthing" this year seems to make a lot of sense.

Other Reviews

Reading the End
Book Lust and things mean a lot (joint review)
The Literary Omnivore

Date: 2013-10-10 11:34 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I may be in a minority on this, but I like Farthing much much better than Tooth and Claw. My true favorite remains Among Others, however! Such a weird and amazing little book.

You've touched on so many things that I thought were great in the series (I'll be very interested to see what you think of the third one -- I was dissatisfied with the ending of an otherwise amazing trilogy). Walton is amazing at depicting the many faces of prejudice and how people address it.

Date: 2013-10-13 06:57 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I absolutely promise that's not the case! I don't have that kind of history either (the only area where I'd say I'm relatively knowledgeable is children's fantasy) and most of the books referenced in the novel are not ones I'm familiar with. However, that didn't stop me from loving it. I think all you really need is to know what it's like to love stories passionately and to long for intellectual companionship as you're growing up, because those are perhaps the two main feelings the novel draws on. I think you're very much the right reader for it.

Date: 2013-10-11 05:25 am (UTC)
taeli: helga fugly from the oblongs (Default)
From: [personal profile] taeli
Ooh, I just finished Lifelode and loved it. (Longterm poly relationship, a likely asexual/aromantic character, a romantic pairing in which the gender of one half is never divulged, story focused on domesticness and relationships) Thank you for the review, I am definitely putting her other books on my TBR list and am really looking forward to her Thessaly books as I heard her reading excerpts from the first at Wiscon this year and it sounded intriguing.

Date: 2013-10-12 04:38 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh, you've reminded me how much I love Lucy.

I find your points on characterization very interesting. I know that when I'm faced with a first person narrator, I give a little more leeway for the characterization of other characters, since I'm getting them refracted through a lens. However, we get them through Lucy and Carmichael's eyes, giving us two angles to average.

Apropos of barely nothing, have you ever read The Last September? Your mention of how Daphne is treated immediately reminded me of how a character is treated in there. (…this does not mean that I think you enjoy books with downtrodden ladies treated poorly by their husbands, but rather that I remembered that I quite liked it.)


Date: 2013-10-13 06:59 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I'm so glad you know this about Lucy now - when I first read your draft I was dying to tell you :P

Date: 2013-10-14 03:22 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Understandable! I'm probably a little more distrustful and paranoid than you are. :)

I hope you like it! Give me a shout when you've had a go at it.

Date: 2013-10-25 08:18 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Nothing insightful to add to this review because I haven't read Farthing yet - but I do intend to! It looks not released anew in the UK until February, so I'll have to hunt around for a copy or buy it used. I've also wanted to read it ever since Ana, Kelly and Aarti wrote about it. And I totally loved Among Others, so there's that too. :)

I find the Jewish story so tragic and only hope we'll finally see actual religious freedom in more of the world soon - as you say, they're always "allowed" to live or worship somewhere, with that privilege, which should be a right, taken away or limited frequently throughout history. It's never-ending and it's really no surprise they fight so hard for Israel. Britain (England at the time) had at least one Jewish massacre in the Middle Ages right here in York and Jews were banned from living here for hundreds of years. Religious freedom is an incredibly recent development.

Anyway, must read!

Meghan @ Medieval Bookworm


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