Saturday, July 28, 2007

Jo Walton's Farthing [Review]

Title: Farthing

Author: Jo Walton (her official web site)

Copyright: 2006, published by Tor Books, New York, ISBN 0-763-31421-5

Length: 319 pages

Genre: Speculative fiction/mystery

Summary: Lucy Rowena Kahn, nee Easterling, has come down to her parent's estate with her husband, David Kahn for a weekend party. It's an uncomfortable setting for the young couple; Lucy's mother had steadfast objections to Lucy marrying someone of the Jewish faith to the point of threatening to attend her daughter's wedding ceremony dressed in mourning clothes. During the course of the weekend, the other guests display a range of prejudices against David which is awkward enough but following the murder of Lord James Thirkie, the police decide that David is the prime suspect in the case. Of course, he didn't do it , but how does one protect oneself against the accusations of prejudice in the midst of an uneasy peace? Farthing is set in an alternate universe where the Nazis control Europe almost entirely and England, suffering from the economic and political constraints this signifies, is vulnerable. (Walton wrote the book in 17 days in a fit of white-hot fury over politics. Don't let that dissuade you. She makes her point with skill and calculation rather than with any blunt objects. )

This would appear to be, in the early chapters, a pedestrian English country house murder mystery. As it progresses, the reader discovers that the lens of a murder mystery and the lens of an alternative timeline are actually used by author Jo Walton to present very interesting perpectives on issues of class, prejudice and hate.

Extract: The first two chapters of Farthing can be found here. We watch the drama unfold through two sets of eyes, the eyes of Lucy and those of Inspector Carmichael of Scotland yard. I will note that Lucy is not an amateur sleuth in this; any actual solving of the crime is left entirely up to the Inspector. Lucy is simply a witness (of sorts).

Also Relevant: I read and loved Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw which won the World Fantasy Award in 2004. That one has dragons wearing hats, and offers a parody of Anthony Trollope's novels. What's not to love? Farthing was marketed as an alternative WWII murder mystery, not a particularly exciting premise to me. Generally speaking, I am not keen on alternate history stories. I always wonder if perhaps the author wanted to write a real historical novel but discovered the difficulty of research and sees alternate history as an easy way out. That's certainly not the case with Farthing.

Unlike Tooth and Claw, this work is not amusing or light-hearted. It may seem so through the first half-dozen chapters, but the mood darkens and you can tell that the ending will not be a particularly uplifting one. In reading it, I was quite frankly reminded of the 1943 movie, Watch on the Rhine, which starred Bette Davis and had been based on a Lillian Hellman play. At other times, I was reminded a bit of Love in a Cold Climate and Gosford Park. At one point, I slammed the covers of this book shut because I thought I knew where it was headed and I dreaded that conclusion.

I fully intend to urge this on the book group at Didi's to see what they think of it. I urge it on you as well. It is due to be released in August in paperback form because Walton has a follow-up novel that features Inspector Carmichael called Ha'Penny due out in the early weeks of October. A fast read, but more powerful than one might expect.