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Jo Walton – Farthing

June 7, 2017

32. Farthing by Jo Walton (2006)
Small Change, Book 1

Read By: John Keating and Bianca Amato
Length: 9h 46min (320 pages)

Genre: Alternate History, Mystery

Started: 03 July 2016
Finished: 08 July 2016

Where did it come from? Audible.
Why do I have it? I *think* I heard about this from Ana, although it might have been Clare or Jenny or Memory. Plus I’d enjoyed Jo Walton’s other books that I’d read, and then this was Audible’s Deal of the Day.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 10 May 2016.

Lucy’s parents don’t
like her husband, but would they
frame him for murder?

Summary: Lucy Kahn and her husband David were surprised to be invited to her parents’ country estate for a summer retreat in 1949: Her parents are party of the elite “Farthing set,” a party of upper-class British politicians, and they’ve never approved of her marriage to David, who is a Jew. They do their best to blend in, Lucy slipping more or less easily back into the wealth and priviledge with which she grew up… until on the first night of the party, one of the Farthing Set’s most prominent men is murdered. It immediately becomes clear that David intended to be framed for the murder, as the scene involved several elements that indicated that a Jewish conspiracy was involved. Now it’s up to Lucy, and to Inspector Carmichael from Scotland Yard, to prove that David is innocent, or else the political and social consequences could be devastating… because while the 1949 England of Farthing is largely the same as the 1949 England we’re familiar with, the small change is that the Allies did not in fact win World War II, and the members of the Farthing Set were responsible for brokering peace with Herr Hitler.

Review: This book made me intensely uncomfortable, but uncomfortable in the best way possible. Everything about this book is sharp – the writing, the mystery, the pacing, and most of all the social commentary. So sharp that it manages to cut to the bone before you’re even aware of what’s happened. It starts out like a more-or-less standard murder mystery, where you’re thinking “okay, Lucy’s parents are a little bit racist, but that probably wasn’t unusual for upper-class Brits at the time,” and then gradually you start to accumulate hints that something’s gone wrong, something’s not quite right about this world and about these people, as Walton keeps filling in little details about how the world got to be the way it is. This subtle wrongness is accentuated with a horrifying (but equally slowly building) sense of just how close this world is to our world. How easy it is to slide from “normal” prejudice into outright fascism, and how few people would actually stand to oppose it, if they recognized what was happening at all. It’s incisive social commentary, masterfully handled so that it’s never spelled out (and thus never runs the risk of getting preachy), and trusts the reader enough to understand the point and draw the parallels on their own.

I do wonder how this book would have read when it first came out a decade ago. Reading it last summer, it was, as I said, equal parts horrifying and cutting and fascinating, and certainly relevant. But as much as I enjoyed it (maybe not the right word, it’s too uncomfortable-making to really be “enjoyed”), after the U.S. Presidential election in November, I couldn’t bring myself to listen to the next books in the series… it seems like we are now even closer to the world of Farthing, and it had gone from uncomfortable to anxiety-inducing just how thin the veil that separates us from them had now become. I’m working myself back up to it, though, because this really was an excellent book, in spite of (or in addition to?) how sharply it cuts. The characters are interesting and compelling and sympathetic (Lucy, David, and the inspector, at any rate), the mystery is well constructed, and it’s easy to read and incredibly easy to get absorbed in; I tore through the audiobook in only a few days, needing to find out what happened next. I did have a bit of a problem keeping some of the names of some of the secondary character straight (one that probably would have been alleviated if I’d read the paper version rather than the audiobook, so it would be easier to flip back and check.) I also think there’s probably some subtleties regarding British politics and their parliamentary system that went over my head, that might have made things even more complex. But even so, this book was an incredible read, and one that sticks with you, haunts you, long after you’ve read it. And even when you might want to just dismiss it as just speculative fiction, alternative history, fantasy, there’s always that lingering doubt that it’s not… not quite. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: It’s not a light read, especially not in the current political climate, but it is an excellent and compelling one. If you don’t need your reading to be too escapist, I highly recommend it.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: I linked to a few above, but there’s always more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: It started when David came in from the lawn absolutely furious.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. buriedinprint permalink
    June 13, 2017 12:01 pm

    How interesting that it feels too close to the bone these days. I can see how that would be the case and wonder how prescient Jo Walton was back then, or whether this is just a matter of history repeating….

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