Old School Wednesdays is a regular Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
Logo designed by the wonderful KMont
Author: Jo Walton
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tor books
Publication date: First published 2006
Paperback: 320 pages
Eight years after they overthrew Churchill and led Britain into a separate peace with Hitler, the upper-crust families of the “Farthing set” are gathered for a weekend retreat. Among them is estranged Farthing scion Lucy Kahn, who can’t understand why her and her husband David’s presence was so forcefully requested. Then the country-house idyll is interrupted when the eminent Sir James Thirkie is found murdered—with a yellow Star of David pinned to his chest.
Lucy begins to realize that her Jewish husband is about to be framed for the crime—an outcome that would be convenient for altogether too many of the various political machinations underway in Parliament in the coming week. But whoever’s behind the murder, and the frame-up, didn’t reckon on the principal investigator from Scotland Yard being a man with very private reasons for sympathizing with outcasts and underdogs—and prone to look beyond the obvious as a result.
As the trap slowly shuts on Lucy and David, they begin to see a way out—a way fraught with peril in a darkening world.
Stand alone or series: First of the Small Change trilogy of novels that can be read as stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): ebook
I read Farthing for a recent episode of Fangirl Happy Hour and I expected many things – I expected it to be good, I expected it to be thoughtful, maybe a little bit fun – I did not expect it to be an utterly terrifying horror story disguised as cosy mystery.
A “story of a world that could have been”, Farthing is set in an alternate post WWII United Kingdom that is slowly sliding into Fascism after a deal with Hitler was reached (The Farthing Peace) and the UK withdrew from the War. Hitler won in Europe, England remained “free” and its “fifth column” of Nazi sympathisers are gaining strength.
The story opens at a country house in the Farthing Estate, where the members of the Farthing Set (the racist, privileged aristos who were the architects of the Farthing Peace) are having a weekend party. Also present is Lucy Kahn, the daughter of the house, and her husband David, a Jewish man who has never been fully accepted by her family.
When one of the Farthing Set – a prominent MP – is found murdered with a Star of David pinned to his chest, all fingers point at David which both Lucy and Carmichael, the Scotland Yard’s inspector called to investigate the murder, find ridiculous (the former) and unconvincing (the latter).
The narrative alternates between Lucy’s first-person narrative and Carmichael’s third-person, following the two as they come closer and closer to the terrifying truth: that political forces and the machineries of the fifth column are in full swing in order to pass laws and slowly turn the UK into fascist-adjacent territory.
One of the recurring themes here is the idea that “good will prevail” and that surely, SURELY the laws are steady and cannot be overturned, that surely the country is not really that bigot and will protect its citizens. It is something that is voiced by David as well as other characters in a way that I thought so completely disarming and relatable that it only served to highlight how evil is normalised and that it happens right before our very eyes. Do you know that poem by Martin Niemöller “First they came for, etc” – this book is an embodiment of that, showing how complicity and silence work for the system.
What is so terrifying about this scenario is that it feels, sounds, reads, horrifyingly close to what is happening in England right about now. Surely Brexit will not pass. Surely the government will have a plan to protect its citizens. Surely this country is not as racist.
Surely, surely, surely. NEVER has such a word held so much terror.
There is a sad powerlessness to its characters – its heroes David, Lucy and Carmichael – all facing off a system that is rigged against them. Both Carmichael and David are also queer characters in a historical context in which being gay or bi is against the law (also a historical fact, not an alternate historical fact). But their powerlessness is juxtaposed with the way all three find a voice, find ways to fight that is about resistance and resilience wherever those can be found. Living to fight another way in any shape or form is a thing but also the truth not always will set you free. I told you this was a horror story. How does it manage to be that as well as a beautiful love story between Lucy and David, I don’t know, maybe Jo Walton is a magician, who knows.
Another one of the greatest things about the novel is how Lucy is portrayed at first as an airheaded heiress, whose (so evil, omg) mother as well as pretty much everybody else apart from David and Carmichael underestimate. But Lucy has not only a lot of depth but is also someone who, despite growing within a household of racist bigots, broke away from her conditioning by listening to other people, by hearing other stories, by sheer will of her empathy. There is hope yet for the world precisely because of people like Lucy, and David and Carmichael.
To sum up: this book was distressing, terrifying and all kinds of amazing.