Farthing by Jo Walton
I’ve really enjoyed the Jo Walton novels that I’ve read—Tooth and Claw and Among Others—but neither blew my world up. I’d heard really good things about her Small Change trilogy (so named because the novels in it are Farthing, Ha’Penny, and Half a Crown), but my past experience with her didn’t send me out to the library immediately to pick up Farthing. It sort of meandered across my currently hypothetical desk at the end of June, languishing until I needed something to break the good-but-average rut my reading was in. Said rut was absolutely shattered.
Farthing takes place in an alternate 1940s, where the Third Reich has taken over Western Europe. The United Kingdom has made peace with Hitler and withdrawn into itself, in thanks large part to the Farthing set, a group of politicians and their family members nicknamed after a country house owned by the noble Eversley family. When the set’s weekend at Farthing ends in the murder of Sir James Thirkie, the man who made the peace, suspicion is immediately cast on David Kahn, the Jewish husband of Lucy, the Eversleys’ daughter. But Inspector Peter Carmichael feels the damning clue is a blind, and begins to investigate further. But is he—and Lucy, the novel’s other narrator—ready to face the consequences of prying into the lives of the powerful in such a perilous world?
Farthing alternates between Lucy’s perspective—at the end, she mentions that these are her writings—and Carmichael’s, which is told from third person. Opening with Lucy not only gets us closer to the murder, but immediately drags us into the familiar world of 1940s Britain and the unfamiliar political situation. I loved Lucy from the word go; she reminded me a bit of Amy Adams’ character in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, honestly. She’s good-natured, impulsive, eccentric, and unendingly sweet. In her creative efforts to be discreet, she’s developed her own vocabulary for sexual orientations and adultery centered around place names. She loves her husband. And, perhaps most endearingly, when push comes to shove, Lucy pulls through quite clear-headedly, despite the way she’s treated by her family (her father coddles her, her mother despises her). I’d follow her anywhere, but then things just get better with Carmichael, a quiet, polite man who tries to do the right thing, which gets more and more complex as the novel wears on.
Walton is known for playing with genre, and here she uses the trappings of a cozy mystery to explore deeper political issues like fascism, but, at its heart, how good people can do awful things. At one point, Carmichael mentions meeting his opposite numbers in the Gestapo when investigating an international smuggling ring, and how he had a difficult time reconciling how nice they were with the policies of the Reich. By the end of the novel, Carmichael and Lucy both get a grip on this in the most heartbreaking of ways. Walton isn’t simply calling those who compromise cowards, but rather shows the shades of grey and complexities of trying to do the right thing. But there are often several right things, and, in the political climate of her novel, sometimes you are just one person. This is the central theme of the novel, and I had to take a moment after reading it to just digest it. It hits home, and it hits home hard.
Walton is also very deft at mimicking styles while maintaining her own voice; again, it’s very much a cozy mystery, although it brutally subverts the supposedly satisfying formula of the mystery in order to better punch you in the stomach. In fact, the history of the mystery is played with in one line that made it into my commonplace book—when Carmichael’s assistant quotes Holmes, he reminds him that their superiors hate it when people do that. Farthing is actually fairly funny. Lucy’s voice is, as I’ve said, brilliant, and her unique way of looking at the world (while it’s never stated, I’m guessing Lucy has a taste for sculpture) is just fun to follow, especially as she tries to explain the peculiar lifestyle of her family. The humor is used to heighten the horror of the novel, which Lucy herself recognizes towards the end of this book. In that way, it’s a very economical novel; everything in service to the point Walton’s trying to make, although it never feels didactic at all.
Now, to get my hands on Ha’Penny…
Bottom line: Farthing is a thoughtful exploration of how good people can do awful things, via a cozy murder mystery in an alternate 1940s Britain where they’re at peace with a Continent-spanning Reich. The characters, Lucy in particular, are brilliantly written, and the way Walton uses their stories to illustrate her point without being didactic is masterful. Just fantastic.
I rented this book from the public library.