Farthing: sly, subtle and sophisticated alternative history

Farthing-Jo-Walton-Cover-640x400At first I thought I’d made a ghastly mistake with Farthing. The blurb promises an alternate history, one where Britain made peace with Nazi Germany in 1941 leaving the USSR to fight alone. This is an England where Churchill never came to power during WW2 and the social revolution of the postwar period never happened. An intriguing scenario which grabbed me straight away. But instead of a ‘what if?’ political thriller, the opening chapter read like a trad cosy crime country house whodunnit, narrated by some frivolous gentrified gel straight out of an Austen social romance.

When the police detective from Scotland Yard was called to the rural retreat of the Farthing set to investigate the murder of Lord Upimself, it all felt a bit Cluedo (in the library with the candlestick), mixed with a dash of the Mitfords. Uh-oh. Or indeed, after sticking with it… oh wow.

That’s the extreme cleverness of Farthing. On one level it is an accomplished English murder-mystery, where all the drama comes from below stairs gossip about which brother married which sister, and who is carrying on with whom and whether any of these people bat for the other side and what in tarnation does one wear to dinner when a dratted Bolshevik took a pot-shot at daddy while he was out exercising the hounds?

Then there’s a much more insidious side to it all, a creeping sinister realisation that the ditzy debutante and the honest cop who narrate alternate chapters of the story are gradually uncovering a very different postwar Britain to the one in our history books. In this opening episode in the Small Change trilogy, the fictitious equivalents of the Bloomsbury set have negotiated a peace which allowed Hitler to concentrate his war efforts to the east. Soviet Russia is still fighting the sieges and famous battles, but instead of sympathy the  communists evoke suspicion in the British people… as do the steady flow of Jewish refugees, fleeing the camps on the Continent. The UK government is gradually veering towards the right but in subtle ways that undermine a free society; by restricting access to universities to only the right kind of people, encouraging children in rural areas to leave school age 11 and return to the land.

In the midst of all this, a prominent member of the government has been murdered and a well-to-do Jew, husband of the flighty narrator, becomes a prime suspect. The policeman – a complex character who grew on me as the plot progressed – can see that all is not as it seems… but will he be able to conduct an honest investigation? And if he does, then what will it reveal?

Farthing trips blithely from babbling upper class twittery to influential geopolitical intrigue without a pause for breath, wrapping one of those world-changing events (a la the assassination of Franz Ferdinand) in a seemingly insignificant investigation. Author Jo Walton deftly carries us along with the superficial steps of the murder investigation, giving us glimpses of the how the British government might so easily have side-stepped into the early stages of totalitarianism.

It’s smart, subtle writing and the comparisons with early Le Carre are more than fair. Walton uses an intimate investigation and two very personal viewpoints to examine the collapse of the British character – and situates the story in a rural idyll every bit as typically English as Midsummer or Morse’s Oxford, even down to its overpowering church bell and rousing rooster. She does this without employing acres of stultifying description, plunging straight in with the action and allowing her key characters to develop by deeds rather than exposition.

It’s all rather refreshing; occasionally wickedly witty, which only serves to underline the reader’s guilty realisation of enjoying the tale while the country is  surreptitiously being fed to the political dogs…

In the end, the protagonists discover as much about themselves and their own loyalty and integrity as the people they are investigating. Far from being a superficial cosy-crime murder-mystery, Farthing touches on the very issue which allows radicalism to take ahold of any nation state: when and how do ordinary people abandon the principles of liberty and become the baying mob? It’s chilling, thought-provoking stuff, and at the same time extremely entertaining – not relentlessly grim or oppressive, unlike most novels which explore this subject.

However, things are likely to take a gloomy turn in Book Two, I suspect.

9/10

 

Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason

 

Farthing by Jo Walton, the first of the Small Change Trilogy, is available at Amazon. And we loved it (in case you hadn’t quite got that!)

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