Ha'penny by Jo Walton
In a follow-up to her taut Farthing, Jo Walton returns to an alternate England where a 1941 agreement with Germany brought a dubious “peace with honor” and prevented a full blown World War II. In Ha’penny, social conservatism and overt racism have been the result of that peace and Scotland Yard Inspector Carmichael finds himself yet again embroiled in a case of deep political intrigue. The events of Farthing (which really should be read first so all the nuances here can be fully appreciated), have left Carmichael determined to leave the Yard and pursue a life far from the devious halls of London power. Unfortunately, a bomb explodes in the city and then proves to be only a small part of a much larger mystery. Carmichael finds himself yet again swept along by large political machinations which threaten him directly and personally. The question is how much he will do to solve the case before him and the impact his actions will have on his own life, as well as all of England.
First and foremost, Walton deserves credit for such a masterfully constructed version of an England desperate for appeasement. With this second smartly written and minutely crafted thriller, she shows just how commanding her knowledge of the World War II era is. Readers with only a passing knowledge of the Mitford sisters will recognize the Larkin family in Ha’penny and references to the IRA, post-wartime shortages and unexploded bombs are all true to actual events of the period. But Walton reaches beyond the facts with this story which proves to be as much about the here and now as it is about the might have been. Consider this quote from a suitably jaded Viola Larkin:
"I have my life, and my life has nothing to do with duty to the country, to the Larkins, and certainly not to Humanity. My life is about theater. It always has been. What you want me to do, I see quite clearly now, is wreck a play, one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, to kill two politicians, who are probably only the tips of icebergs and can easily be replaced by others just as bad."
Vi is not a coward or a fool; she is a survivor. And while she would love to see the world change she is wary of any suggestion that such change can come about from the acts of a few people or that they will not be without great and unexpected cost. It is noble to suggest that the acts of the few (or the one) can change the world but rarely has that happened in history. All too often people react just like Vi does, or as Carmichael, who horrifyingly finds himself in the position of having to save Adolf Hitler from a bomber. If Adolf Hitler is the target, are the bombers really terrorists at all or the best sort of freedom fighters? Walton won’t answer that question for you, she just shows you all the players, reveals their motivations and lets the reader decide what is right or wrong.
Here is an admitted IRA bomber talking to Vi:
“And that’s what [British Prime Minister] Normanby’s trying to make himself, with all this hysteria about terrorists and the new laws. And you just swallow it, maybe with a little grimace, but down it goes like cough medicine. England is like a country of sleepwalkers, walking over the edge of a cliff, and has been these last eight years. You’re prosperous, you’re content, and you don’t care what’s going on the other side of the Channel as long as you can keep on having boat races and horse shows and coming up to London to see a show, or for the workers, dog races and days on the beach at Southend.”
The perils of complacency are fully exposed in Ha’penny, most particularly in the Larkin family where one of Vi’s sisters is married to a Nazi leader. But the question of just how far “regular” people must go to effect change is presented in a wholly unique manner. The freedom fighters are not angels; the way Vi is treated by the group of bombers (which includes one of her other sisters, an avowed communist) is startling in its casual brutality. Her acquiescence to their plan, and subsequent romantic longings, makes for a classic good girl/bad boy romantic entanglement, but even that plays out in unexpected ways. By the book’s end, as Carmichael rushes to save the innocent victims, readers will be left wondering just who really needed saving -- if anyone -- in this mad collision of political ideas.
It is not easy to write a book like Ha’penny well, and the temptation to take a heavy hand with history (even alternate history) in order to make a point must be difficult to resist. Jo Walton has done masterful work with this novel however and left me shaking my head by how easily the book’s multiple plot threads were brought together for such a stunning climax. This is political suspense at its best and brightest and should not be missed. You have an author at the top of her form here questioning the nature of freedom.
Ha’penny by Jo Walton