Six Impossible Things

A Blog About Fiction and Reading

Farthing

FarthingFarthing by Jo Walton

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I can’t remember if I first heard about this novel through friends, journal reviews, or Boing Boing, but I know I heard about it from all three.  I knew when I first heard about it that I wanted to read it, though, and it was one of those books that I was eager to read.  Not since … well, Fragile Things had I been that excited to read a book.

The novel doesn’t disappoint.  It’s a mystery novel, at its core, but it’s an alternative history science fiction novel, too, set in 1949 England.  In this England, the government has negotiated what they call an Honorable Peace with Germany, to stop the fighting.  Unfortunately, there’s a neo-Fascism that underlies this peace.  Even though the Jews aren’t forced to wear yellow stars, there is a clear prejudice against them, so when our protagonist, David Kahn, and his new wife Lucy, previously of the upper eschelon Farthing set, are invited to the Farthing manor for a weekend, it’s no surprise that there is a significant amount of tension there.  When one of the guests is murdered, though, apparently stabbed and left with a yellow star pinned to his body, it becomes clear to David and Lucy that they are being set up.

What starts out as an issue of class (one of the inspectors can’t believe that anyone from the Farthing set could have committed the crime; it must have been a servant, or a Bolshevik, or a Communist) quickly becomes an issue of tolerance.  Homosexuals are also considered suspects, “just because,” and it’s suggested that it’s just a matter of time before any group on the fringe of society will become automatic suspects in any crimes.

What I find most intriguing about this novel is the dichotomy between the feel of the novel (it’s very much a “cozy” mystery novel) and the weight of the theme.  The narrative shifts back and forth between Lucy and Inspector Carmichael.  Lucy comes across as naive and flighty, while Carmichael comes across as wordly and sophisticated, and the two sides of the story pair nicely to tell everything that’s happening in the investigation.  Both characters are forced to make serious decisions throughout the novel, and it speaks clearly of their personal integrities, even if we don’t agree with them.

This is a frightening story of politics, intolerance, and the power of words.  It doesn’t provide any easy answers to the questions it raises, and it will likely leave you stewing and pacing when you finish it.  It’s a novel that could sit beside both Nineteen Eighty-four and Brave New World, though the message in Farthing is much more subtle and refined than in either of the former books.  On the one hand, you’re left thinking how hopeless the situation will be, while on the other hand, you’re inspired by the hope that drives people to resist against it.   What makes the book much more interesting is that it’s timely.  In fact, Ursula K. LeGuin puts it best in her blurb that’s on the back cover of the book:

“If Le Carré scares you, try Jo Walton. Of course her brilliant story of a democracy selling itself out to fascism sixty years ago is just a mystery, just a thriller, just a fantasy—of course we know nothing like that could happen now. Don’t we?”

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December 2, 2006 - Posted by | Adult Fiction, Reviews

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