So I picked up my paperback copy of Farthing, by Jo Walton, just to flip around and remind myself why it has stuck with me so powerful even though I finished the last book in its series ages and ages ago… and I found that I could not put it down again. But I had to, because getting wrapped up in it again — which I could see was threatening — wasn’t something I had time for right now. And yet… gosh, just rereading the first chapter made me burn to reread the whole thing, all three books in the series. So I downloaded copies to my Kindle, because in fact — I suddenly realized — “my” copies of the books actually belong to bronxbee, and I hadn’t previously expressed my deep appreciation for them by throwing some money at the author. Now my digital karma is satisfied in this regard.
If George Orwell and Dorothy L. Sayers collaborated on a novel, it might read like Farthing, which opens with the murder of an aristocrat at an English country house party in the late 1940s… except it’s an alternate England in which the course of World War II went rather differently. I won’t spoil too much of it for you, because one of the great joys of Walton’s writing is in how slowly she reveals the differences in this world, just lets them arise naturally from the thoughts and conversations and actions of people who do not, of course, realize that they’re living in an “alternate world”: it’s just their world. But the gist of it is that England and America appeased Hitler rather than fighting him, and now England, at least, has fallen under a sort of polite fascism — even though Hitler himself has kept his ambitions confined to the Continent — in response to the Fuhrer’s domination of global geopolitics.
Though the book opens with the first person perspective of Lucy Kahn, née Eversley — an aristocrat who had the poor taste to marry a Jew — and often returns to her POV, the book belongs to Inspector Peter Anthony Carmichael, whom Walton presents to us via a third-person perspective that somehow feels more intimate than Lucy’s first-person. Carmichael instantly feels like one of the classic detectives of English mysteries, someone who can take his place alongside Peter Wimsy and Albert Campion, and gets even more interesting as the book develops: he’s not just a cop, he ends up being profoundly representative of the limitations of this alternate society… and also, ironically, of ours, too, in a brilliant compare-and-contrast with how we — we in the freedom-loving, Hitler-defeating real world — limit freedom.
Everything that happens here — and in the sequels, Ha’penny [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] and Half a Crown [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] — is horrifying because it’s so plausible: Walton makes this simultaneously a story and a world set in a past that took a different road and also our present, where we seem to face a similar crossroads again. And yet, even if you care not one whit for politics or history, there’s a fantastic mystery and a pair of deeply involving personal stories here — Lucy’s and Peter’s — that will keep you turning pages, and sorry to see it end.