Saturday, April 20, 2013

'Farthing' for your thoughts?

Arggh, I'm still working on this blogging thing. If I were Catholic I'd be confessing that it has been more than thirty days since I blogged. I'm assuming that's an official sin worthy of confession and absolution, but being an atheist of Jewish and Unitarian extraction, I can't be sure, and it's not worth converting to find out.

The only excuse for my month plus of silence is that I've been saving blogging mojo for a magnum opus on the brilliance that is Kate Atkinson. It's daunting though, she is so good that I'm not sure I can say anything about her novels that the novels themselves don't already say. Her newest, 'Life After Life', deserves every iota of critical and commercial success it has already received and then some. The problem with all that coverage is that I'm stuck as to what of value I can add to the discourse. Still, I promise to come back soon with something I hope will inspire you (if there is a plural you reading this) to pick up this newest book (or any of her older ones, they are all fabulous if occasionally offbeat, which is actually one of the things I love the best about them). Or, you can just go buy it and read it now and save me a bunch of time.

As proof that I'm not fooling about getting serious, I'm here to review a book I just finished think should garner a larger audience, 'Farthing' by Jo Walton (Tor Books, 2013; originally published 2006).

Walton, who has been writing for many years, only recently came to my attention when I read 'Among Other', which deservedly won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2012, but don't discount her as a sci-fi/fantasy geek, her work defies any of the normal preconceptions about that genre (not that I don't love sci-fi and fantasy, I do, but there are no quests or dragons or aliens or space ships in this book or 'Among Others'). I am quite sure that it was the success of 'Among Others' that prompted Tor to reissue Walton's trio of alt-history novels, beginning with 'Farthing', which imagines a world in which a group of British conservative, proto-fascists depose Churchill and negotiate a peace with Hitler in the spring of 1941.

The events in 'Farthing' begin in 1949, eight years after Walton's world diverges from the history we already know. Since signing the peace treaty with Great Britain, the Third Reich has consolidated its control over most of continental Europe, though it is still engaged in fighting Russia. Meanwhile the US has evidently remained aloof and, as in Phillip Roth's 'The Plot Against America', Charles Lindbergh is president. Britain under Anthony Eden had tenuously clung to democracy and personal freedoms, though long-simmering strains of anti-semitism has solidified and become more overt, as has opposition to communism and unionized labor. The political faction that brought about the end of the war, the elite Farthing Set, eponymously named for the home seat of it's central figures Lord and Lady Eversley, is poised to gain control of the government. While this may seem to be mere backdrop fora novel that on its surface appears to be an homage to the classic british mysteries of the 1920s and 30s, it becomes clear as the story progresses that politics and its impact on her characters are Walton's true subjects.

The central tension is not who did it, but rather, how will the novel's alternating narrators, Lucy Kahn, the determined, if somewhat dithering, daughter of the Eversleys who is a family pariah for marrying a Jew, and Inspector Peter Carmichael of Scotland Yard, a closeted homosexual, react to events as they unfold. Neither escapes unscathed and their fates forcefully bring home the horrors of trying to do the right thing in a world careening towards totalitarianism.

I am excited that Tor is planning on reissuing Walton's two additional novels set in this world. 'Ha'penny' (coming next month) and 'Half a Crown' (sadly not on the schedule until September). I will read both, though I am frightened by what I will discover since the Farthing set would make even 'House of Cards' leading villain Francis Underwood shudder, for not only do they match him in ruthless ambition, they are ideologues that will pursue their agenda viciously. This may be the scariest reading since Orwell's '1984'.

1 comment:

  1. I'm commenting on this post and not your latest because I only started reading Cinder and expect the second book to be a spoiler. The writing and concept in Cinder was really good.

    Walton's alternative history sounds interesting if chilling. I'm also a child of a Jew and a Christian (Episcopalian). We celebrate a mix of holidays with our kids (my husband is Anglican) and I consider myself culturally Jewish but not religious if that makes sense.

    You must be pleased for this gorgeous Maine day. I can't remember a June as wet as this one in the past 15 years. So nice to connect with another writer and Main Point Books fan!


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