Author: Jo Walton
Details: (c) 2006 Jo Walton; Pub 2007 Tor; ISBN 0-7653-5280-X
Verdict: Farthing is incredibly poignant.
Reasons for reading it: I was reading papersky's journal when she was discussing writing it, and it sounded like the kind of novel that would interest me, but also likely to be very disturbing. Then it was published and all sorts of people raved about it, so I decided to get over the disturbingness and read it anyway.
How it came into my hands: I got a free ebook version of it from Tor's website promotion. I realized that a lot of time was passing and I just wasn't getting round to sitting at the computer concentrating on reading a whole novel, without the opportunity for reading during the boring bits of commuting. So I decided that I needed to get hold of a physical copy. Happily, bugshaw lent it to cartesiandaemon and gave him permission to sub-lend it to me, so thank you both.
I thought Farthing was going to hurt, but I didn't realize how much. I'm still glad I read it, because it's an impressive piece in many ways, but ouch. The thing is, David could very easily have been modelled on my grandfather. Well, not exactly because Grandad "passed" a lot better; he was fair complexioned and looked vaguely germanic like three quarters of English people. So he didn't get mistaken for a waiter very much, but he did get the sort of remarks that people "accidentally" make to Lucy addressed to him directly a bit. (He used to tell a story of discussing financial matters with some acquaintance, and the acquaintance commenting that a particular company was all right, even though they'd recently appointed a Jew as managing director, "as the saying goes, scum will rise", and Grandad replied "So does cream" and walked out.) But yeah, he came from a family with enough money to move in upper class circles, and was educated in public schools, and was patriotically but modestly devoted to England and English upper class values, and fought in the British army in WW2, and believed with all his heart that if Jews just behaved like respectable gentlemen then the English would soon get over their old superstitious prejudices and everybody would live together in an Enlightenment Utopia. But a lot of the setup feels very familiar to me from the stories I grew up with, about being tolerated but not quite accepted, and at the same time mostly buying in to the kind of values that led to this sort of fine social distinction being incredibly important.
Apart from that, well, it's always been obvious to me that what seems like a reasonably civilized, open society can quite easily turn nasty; I've never imagined that what happened in Germany in the 30s was an unrepeatable one-off. So Farthing is a book that is talking about a fear that's always been part of my worldview. Not a terrifying panic fear such as might inform my response to a horror novel or a book about the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy, but an awareness of needing to be prepared to get out of a formerly pleasant, comfortable country if necessary. I don't know if Farthing was intended to be read naively, so that the creeping fascism would come as a shock to a reader expecting a nice cosy little traditional mystery, but the psychological effect worked very well knowing what was coming so that all the little hints really stood out. It's one of those books where you watch helplessly as everything goes downhill, which can sometimes be really depressing but isn't here, because there's a good balance between some amount of hope on the personal level, and the more general political background getting irrevocably worse.
Perhaps surprsingly, Farthing does actually work well as a mystery novel too. The characterization is superb, and the whodunnit is twisty and suspenseful while also being fair. The crime is solved in a satisfying way, even though the solution isn't the denoument of the novel as one might expect. Walton acknowledges Tey and Dickinson as influences, and I think it's reasonable that someone who enjoyed those writers would also find Farthing appealing. The sense of period is really very good, and all the assumptions about class and gender and so on that would seem absolutely normal if encountered in a novel that was actually written in the 40s become really chilling, while simultaneously creating a plausible ambience. I like the ending a lot; it's unexpected, and hints at how awful things are going to get in the future without being too atrociously downbeat in the frame of the story itself. The way it breaks the mystery novel frame is very clever too.
Sometimes the political message feels a little unsubtle; the news report from the day after Normanby's election has some very obvious parallels with the modern political situation, and it's also a bit too extreme. The gradual slide into a more and more authoritarian state is believable, the idea that a newly elected prime minister would straight away do away with elections and introduce ID cards and make it a treasonable offence to criticize him at all seems over the top. From discussions of it, I thought the whole book might be like this, but it's only really one chapter that is so blatant and the rest is beautifully subtle. I do like the presentation of different motivations for supporting fascism, everything from political apathy to a genuine fear of Russian communism, as well as plenty of people who are just unthinkingly antisemitic and homophobic and willing to accept that you have nothing to fear if you're innocent, who are prime victims to be manipulated by those who are genuinely evil and power-hungry. That part is extremely believable and therefore scary, and I particularly liked the character of Lord Eversley as basically a decent person but not sufficiently heroic to sacrifice his own comfort in order to oppose an evil political machine.
This is one book that really lives up to its hype. I've been enthusiastically recommending it to everyone I've spoken to since reading it, and I'm going to try and see if I can get hold of a copy for my parents because I think they'd appreciate it.