One summer weekend in 1949--but not our 1949--the well-connected ""Farthing set"", a group of upper-crust English families, enjoy a country retreat. Lucy is a minor daughter in one of those families; her parents were both leading figures in the group that overthrew Churchill and negotiated peace with Herr Hitler eight years before. Despite her parents' evident disapproval, Lucy is married--happily--to a London Jew. It was therefore quite a surprise to Lucy when she and her husband David found themselves invited to the retreat. It's even more startling when, on the retreat's first night, a major politician of the Farthing set is found gruesomely murdered, with abundant signs that the killing was ritualistic. It quickly becomes clear to Lucy that she and David were brought to the retreat in order to pin the murder on him. Major political machinations are at stake, including an initiative in Parliament, supported by the Farthing set, to limit the right to vote to university graduates. 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 looking beyond the obvious. 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. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
Starred Review. World Fantasy Award-winner Walton (Tooth and Claw) crosses genres without missing a beat with this stunningly powerful alternative history set in 1949, eight years after Britain agreed to peace with Nazi Germany, leaving Hitler in control of the European continent. A typical gathering at the country estate of Farthing of the power elite who brokered the deal is thrown into turmoil when the main negotiator, Sir James Thirkie, is murdered, with a yellow star pinned to his chest with a dagger. The author deftly alternates perspective between Lucy Kahn, the host's daughter, who has disgraced herself in her family's eyes by marrying a Jew, and Scotland Yard Inspector Peter Carmichael, who quickly suspects that the killer was not a Bolshevik terrorist. But while the whodunit plot is compelling, it's the convincing portrait of a country's incremental slide into fascism that makes this novel a standout. Mainstream readers should be enthralled as well. (Aug.)
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1 . Old tale in a new setting
Posted June 09, 2010 by philiplo , UtahTwenty-five years or so ago I read a series of books called "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. These books were my initial exposure to the concept of the antihero, a protagonist so unlikeable as to cause disgust or revulsion in the reader. I loved those stories at the same time I was repulsed by them. Today, in reading "Farthing," though no such character exists, I found myself experiencing those same emotions as in my youth.
The story starts innocently enough, with the murder of a member of the English aristocracy, but slowly, in bits and pieces, we discover this is not the England of Agatha Christie or Dick Francis, and not the England whose history we know today. Instead, the author has chosen an alternate path, setting the tale in an England produced by a different outcome to World War II; an England that bargained with, rather than fought against, Hitler's Third Reich. As with Thomas Covenant, this world was both the feature of the story and the part we're made to hate.
While the details of the history unfolded, and as I learned the thoughts and biases of the characters, I felt sickened by the callousness and bigotry displayed. In telling what amounts to an average detective tale, Jo Walton has put together a nice work of social commentary that leaves me uncomfortable and questioning. Nicely done, that.
I look forward to reading the next in this series, if for nothing more than to revisit the sense of revulsion I felt in the first. It may make me twitch, but it keeps me aware of the dangers of letting others do my thinking for me.
August 27, 2007
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Excerpt from Farthing by Jo Walton
It started when David came in from the lawn absolutely furious. We were down at Farthing for one of Mummy's ghastly political squeezes. If we could have found any way out of it we would have been somewhere else, but Mummy was inexorable so there we were, in my old girlhood bedroom that I'd left behind so happily when I'd married David, him in a morning suit and me in a little knee-length beige Chanel thing.
He burst in, already drawing breath to speak. "Lady Thirkie thinks you should sack me, Lucy!"
I didn't see at first that he was spitting mad, because I was busy trying to get my hair to stay on top of my head without disarranging my pearls. In fact, if my hair had been less recalcitrant about that sort of thing probably it would never have happened, because I'd have been on the lawn with David, and then Angela would never have been so dim. In any case, at first the whole thing struck me as funny, and I absolutely gurgled with laughter. "Darling, you can't sack a husband, can you? It would have to be divorce. Whatever have you been doing that Angela Thirkie thinks is enough for me to divorce you?"
"Lady Thirkie appears to have mistaken me for the hired help," David said, coming around behind me so I could see him in the mirror, and of course, when I saw him, I realized at once that he wasn't the slightest bit amused by it, and that I shouldn't have laughed, and in fact that laughing was probably the worst thing I could have done in the circumstances, at least without bringing David around to seeing the funny side of things first.
"Angela Thirkie is a complete nincompoop. We've all been laughing at her for years," I said, which was completely true but didn't help even a shred, because David, of course, hadn't been laughing at her for years, hadn't been there for years to laugh at her, so it was another thing pointing up the difference between me and him and just at the time when he'd had the difference rather shoved down his throat in the first place because of Angela's idiocy.
He looked rather grim in my mirror, so I turned around to see if he looked any better the right way around. I kept my hands up in my hair because I nearly had it right at last. "She thought I shouldn't be helping myself to cocktails and she said she'd tell your mother and recommend she sack me," he said, smiling but in a way that meant he didn't find it even the least bit funny. "I suppose I do look rather like a waiter in this getup."
"Oh darling, you don't; you look delicious," I said, automatically soothing, although it was true. "Angela's a nitwit, truly. Hasn't she been introduced to you?"
"Oh yes, at one of the engagement parties, and then again at the wedding," David said, his smile becoming even more brittle. "But no doubt we all look the same to her."
"Oh darling!" I said, and let my hands go out towards him, abandoning my hair for the time being, because there was nothing I could say---he was right and we both knew he was. "I'll come back out with you now and we can give her such a snub."
"I shouldn't mind it," David said, taking my hands and looking down at me. "Except that it reflects on you. You'd have been much more comfortable marrying someone of your own kind."
And this was true of course, there is a sort of comfort in being with people who think exactly as you do because they've been brought up exactly the same way and share all the same jokes. It's a feeble kind of comfort and doesn't last beyond seeing that you've nothing truly in common except that kind of upbringing and background. "People don't marry in order to be comfortable," I said. Then, as usual with people I trust, I let my train of thought go haring off out of control. "Unless maybe Mummy did. That would explain a lot about her marriage." I put my hand to my mouth to cover a horrified laugh, and also to try to catch back the train of thought that had got away from me. My old governess, Abby, taught me to think of it that way and to do that. It helps for the blunders, at least if I do it in time, but it does mean that Mummy has reproved me on several occasions for keeping my hand up to my mouth more than a lady ought!
"Then are you sure you didn't marry me for the opposite reason?" David asked, ignoring the diversion. "Especially so you could use me to enjoy snubbing people like Lady Thirkie?"
"That's absurd," I said, and turned back to the mirror, and this time I caught up my hair and the pearls all in one swirl and managed to get it just right where all my careful trying before had failed. I smiled at my reflection, and at David where he was standing behind me.
There was a certain grain of truth in what he said, but a very distant grain that wouldn't be good for either of us or for our marriage if we spent time dwelling on it. Daddy had made me face all that on the night he'd agreed to the marriage going ahead. David had imagined that Daddy would make endless difficulties, but in fact he just gave me that one really hard talk and then buckled down and accepted David as one of the family. It was Mummy who made the difficulties, as I'd known it would be.
Daddy had called me into his office in London and told all the secretaries and everyone not to let anybody in. I'd felt simultaneously rather important, and as if I were ten years old and on the carpet for not doing my homework. I had to keep reminding myself I was the thoroughly grown-up and almost-on-the-shelf young lady I really was. I sat in the leather chair he keeps for visitors, clutching my purse on my knee, and he sat down behind his big eighteenth-century desk and just looked at me for a moment. He didn't beat about the bush at all, no nonsense with drinks and cigarettes and getting comfortable. "I'm sure you know what I want to talk to you about, Luce," he started.
I nodded. "David," I said. "I love him, Daddy, and I want to marry him."
"David Kahn," Daddy had said, as if the words left a bad taste in his mouth.
I started to say something feeble in David's defense, but Daddy held up a hand. "I already know what you're going to say, so save your breath. He was born in England, he's a war hero, his family are very wealthy. I could counter with the fact that he was educated on the Continent, he's a Jew, and not one of us."
"I was just going to say we love each other," I said, with as much dignity as I could manage. Unlike Mummy, who could only make a nuisance of herself, Daddy really could have scuppered the whole thing at that point. Although I was twenty-three and, since Hugh died, heir to pretty much everything except Farthing and the title, I didn't have any money of my own beyond what Daddy let me have, and neither did David. His family were wealthy enough, but he himself hardly had a bean, certainly not enough for the two of us to live on. His family, which surprised me at first though it made sense afterwards, didn't approve of me one whit more than mine approved of him. So it could have been a real Romeo and Juliet affair if not for Daddy seeing sense and coming over to my side.
"Having seen you together and talked to young David, I don't doubt that, funnily enough," Daddy said. "But what I want to know is whether that's enough. Love's a wonderful thing, but it can be a fragile flower when the winds blow cold against it, and I can see a lot of cold winds poised to howl down on the pair of you."
"Just so long as you're not one of those winds, Daddy," I said, pressing my knees together and sitting up straight, to look as mature and sensible as I could.
Daddy laughed. "I've seen you sitting like that when you want to impress me since you were five years old," he said. Then he suddenly leaned forward and turned really serious. "Have you thought what it's going to mean being Mrs. Kahn? We share a name that we didn't do anything personally to earn but which we inherited from our Eversley ancestors, who did. It is a name that opens doors for us. You're talking about giving that up to become Mrs. Kahn---"
"Kahn means that David's ancestors were priests in Israel when ours were painting themselves blue with woad," I said, quoting---or probably misquoting---Disraeli.
Daddy smiled. "All the same, what it means to people now and in England will close a lot of doors in your face."
"Not doors I want to go through," I said.
Daddy raised an eyebrow at that.
"No, really, I have thought this through," I said, and I had, or thought I had. "You remember when Billy Cheriton was taking me about everywhere?" Billy had been one of Mummy's worst ideas, the younger son of the Earl of Hampshire, who's Mummy's cousin and who happened to be married to one of her best friends. We'd known each other all our lives, gone to the same nursery parties, and then the same young-people parties, and Mummy's idea had been what a natural match it would have been.
Daddy nodded. He didn't think much of Billy.
"Once we were down at Cheltenham for the racing because Tibs had a horse running and Billy was showing the family flag. We were in a crowd of nice people just like us, and the horse lost, of course."
"Tibs Cheriton has never had an eye for horseflesh," Daddy said. "Sorry. Go on."
"So we were drowning our sorrows in Pimms, and I was bored, suddenly, bored to screaming point, not just with Cheltenham and that crowd but with the whole thing, the whole ritual. Tibs and one of the other boys were talking about horse breeding, and I thought that it was just the same with us, the fillies and the stallions, the young English gentry, breeding the next generation of English gentry, and I couldn't think of anything more excruciatingly boring than to be married to Billy, or Tibs, or any of that cackling crowd." Not that I'd have married Tibs if he were the last man in the world, because I was pretty sure he was Athenian, and I think Mummy knew it too, otherwise it would have been Tibs she'd have been pushing me into going around with, not Billy. "I don't want that. I've been presented and done all the deb stuff and even before I met David I knew it wasn't what I wanted."
That was when Daddy said it. "Are you sure you're not marrying David just to escape from that?" he asked. "To shock Billy and all the Billies by doing something they can't countenance? Because if you are, it isn't kind to David, and that'll stop being fun too, much sooner than you think."
I thought about it, and I could see the smallest grain of that in me, the desire to give it all up and rub their faces in it with someone totally unacceptable by their own ridiculous standards. I'm afraid Mummy had rather done her bit to encourage that part of my feelings, while intending the opposite, of course. "I do think there might be the tiniest bit of that, Daddy," I admitted. "But really I love David, and he and I have so much in common in ways that aren't to do with upbringing and education and that count for a lot more with me."
"He assured me he didn't intend to pressure you to convert," Daddy said.
"He's not very religious himself," I said.
"He told me he has no intention of giving up his religion." Daddy frowned.
"Why should he?" I asked. "It's not just a religion, it's a culture. He's not very religious, but he's not ashamed of his culture, his background, and converting would be like saying he was. It wouldn't make any difference to anything anyway---people who hate the Jews hate converts just as much. He says Jewish children take the religion of the mother, so that's all right."
"In the same way it would make no difference, people will always talk of you as 'that Mrs. Kahn, Lucy Eversley that was.'" He made his voice into a cruel imitation of a society woman, of Mummy at her absolute bitchiest really.
I can't say that didn't hurt a bit, but even as it hurt, the tiny sting of it made me realize how unimportant it really was, compared to the way I loved David. I shook my head. "Better that than not marrying David," I said.
"You know, in Germany---" Daddy began.
"But we're not in Germany. We fought a war---you and David both fought a war---to ensure that the border of the Third Reich stops at the Channel. It always will. Germany doesn't have anything to do with anything."
"Even in England you'll come in for a lot of trouble, which your young man is used to but you won't be," Daddy said. "Little things like not being allowed into clubs, big things like not being allowed to buy land. And that will come to your children. When your daughters come out, they might not be allowed to be debs and be presented, with the name Kahn."
"So much the better for them," I said, though that did shake me a little.
"There might be stings and insults you don't expect," Daddy added.
But although he was right, I generally found I didn't mind them, or thought them funny, whereas poor David wasn't used to them at all, like this thing now with idiotic Angela Thirkie and her stupid assumption that anyone with a face and coloring like David's had to be a servant. Maybe he was better able to deal with an outright snub than this kind of casual disregard.
I let my hair go, cautiously, and when it stayed up, I turned back to David. "I wanted to marry you because of you, and I've never given a damn about those people one way or the other and you should know that."
For a moment he kept on looking pained. Then he smiled and hugged me, and for the time being everything was all right again.
He took my hand and we walked out into the garden, where Mummy's ghastly bash was now in full swing.
What I was thinking as we walked out there was that David and I really did have a tremendous amount in common, books and music and ways of thinking about things. I don't mean usual ways of thinking, because I'm scatterbrained and not really very bright while David is tremendously clever, of course. But time after time we'll come to the same conclusions about whether something is sound, starting from different places and using different methods of logic. David never bores me and he never gives me the feeling that other tremendously brainy people I've known have given me of leaving me streets behind. We can talk about anything, except perhaps some of the trickier bits of our own relationship. There are some things best left to the subconscious, after all, as David himself says.
I gave his hand an extra squeeze just because I loved him, and he looked down at me, for once not picking up what I meant but thinking I wanted something. So I put my face up to be kissed, and that was how we snubbed stupid insensitive Angela Thirkie, who was married to the most boring man in England, who everyone knows didn't even want her, he wanted her sister, by kissing like newlyweds on the lawn when in fact we'd been married eight whole months and really ought to be settling down to life as old respectable married people.
But anyway, when I heard that Sir James Thirkie had been murdered, that's the first thing I thought of, Angela Thirkie being mean to David the afternoon before, and I'm afraid the first thing to go through my mind, although fortunately I managed to catch the train before it got out of the tunnel that time so I didn't say so, was that it well and truly served her right.