Friday, 1 May 2015

Farthing by Jo Walton

I got off to a rocky start with Jo Walton. Among Others didn't wow me - I liked it, but the pacing felt off, and keen tension lacking. Since then, however, I've read two of her other books that have simply blown my mind. Tooth and Claw - Victorian society with dragons - made it on to my Top 10 list of last year. And I will not be at all surprised if Farthing joins it there next year.

So far in 2015, this is one of the books that has hit me the hardest, and one of the few that has made me evangelical. It's so, so, so freaking good. It's also terrifying. Walton pulls no punches, and our own knowledge of what happened in our world colours what could happen in ways that are unsettling, stark, and, necessary.


I went to see Children of Men in the theatre when it first came out, and it also blew my mind. But what struck me the most, other than how good that movie is and how much I carried it around with me for weeks afterwards, was the reaction of one of the people I'd seen it with. Their reaction was "thank goodness that could never happen here." I was agog - what I took from the movie was that that could happen anywhere, under the right circumstances.

That's a little bit like what Jo Walton has done here. In a world where Britain made peace with Germany in 1941, German atrocities continue unabated. What never happened was the wide media coverage of the liberation of the camps, the wholesale outrage of the world as the horrors of the concentration camps were made public as part of the end of the war. And so, they continue. People know, but don't want to know - similar to the lead-up to the war. They're a little uncomfortable with Jews too, and maybe it's all being exaggerated. Homosexuals aren't really any more legal than they are in Germany, the response is just of a different magnitude.

In a world where the Third Reich continues, how long before Britain unleashes its own antisemitism and homophobia?

This book gives a terrifying answer, where a weekend at a country house of the political elite turns into a murder investigation, as one of the most prominent of the "Farthing Set," the conservative politicians who ousted Winston Churchill in this version of history, turns up dead with a Jewish star pinned to his chest.

A little obvious, you might think, and indeed so does Inspector Carmichael. He suspects that this is a frame-up of Daniel Kahn, who married the daughter of those who own the country house, to their dismay and semi-disinheritance. The book flips back and forth in chapters between Carmichael, who is himself gay, and Lucy, the daughter who married Daniel. The trap closes tightly around all of them, as what is at stake is more than just one Jewish man, but indeed, the political fate of the country, and the inexorable slide towards camps of their own. Personalizing that is the question of the integrity of one man, whether or not he can stand by quietly, knowing full well what has happened and what will happen, but all he holds dear is threatened if he speaks up.

This is tense and terrifying, and rejects soundly the belief that it couldn't have happened here, that somehow this was due to a particular fault of the German people. Having spent some time on exchange in Germany, people there have spent decades grappling with the knowledge of what they and their grandparents were capable of. And we have learned very little from the Holocaust if we use it as a way to think of what those people over there were capable of, and distance ourselves.

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