November 2006

Adrienne Martini

specfic floozy

Preaching the Farthing

One of the best things about this SpecFic Floozy gig (besides, of course, the fabulous pay and industry cred) is that I can play preacher and lead you all to some mighty good words. Months when I can do this are wonderful ones, if few and far between. Most of what I read -- most of what anyone reads, I suspect -- is good, which is about all one can ask. Good is, well, good.

But great is what really sets my heart pitter-patting and my fingers to the keyboard to preach on. This month’s sermon is about Jo Walton’s Farthing, which is a subversive, trenchant and simultaneously dark and light piece of speculative fiction. Can I get an amen?

Walton snuck up on me. I’d heard good things about her World Fantasy Award winning Tooth and Claw but resisted, mostly because there are so many books that I wanted to read that didn’t picture dragons on the cover, which has become a warning sign for me. Her debut novel The King’s Peace slipped completely under my radar, despite the fact that she picked up a John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer when it was released in 2002. But Farthing has made me a believer.

It opens like one of P.G. Wodehouse’s Blandings yarns. A wealthy British family throws a party at their country home, called Farthing. The most upper crusty of the upper crust turn out for the event and they are quirky characters all. Including our narrator Lucy, who is the daughter of the manor. Lucy reads at first like the merest fluff of a girl; she wouldn’t be out of place in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. She’s not what she first appears to be, nor is anything else.

That includes Walton’s version of 1949. Here Hitler is still in power and rules the Continent with his iron fist. The British brokered a peace with him in 1941, one in which they agreed to overlook the genocide in exchange for being left alone. World War II, in Walton’s world, is simply “The Jewish War.”

And the Jewish War continues on, despite the brokered peace. Prejudices die hard, no matter whose universe you are living in. Our frothy heroine Lucy married a Jew, which causes no end horror on her mother’s part. Farthing, however, isn’t really about getting the family to accept the marriage, hold hands while singing a happy song. Walton’s stakes are much higher.

An important politician is murdered during the night at Farthing, which sets off both an investigation and a political coup. Lucy’s husband is accused and a county starts a slide into fascism. Jews are trotted in order to scare the populace. Bolsheviks and gays, too. It all starts to feel rather familiar: “The Communist Party, along with its newspapers, was to be outright banned. The Labour Party was to be checked by M15 for secret Communist 'sleepers' that might have infiltrated their ranks. The line taken was that the innocent had nothing to fear. Nobody protested in Parliament at this, probably because they were all too afraid…”

Despite the parallels to today’s current political climate (just substitute “Liberal" for “Communist”), the murder mystery is the spine from which the rest of the book moves. A Scotland Yard inspector, who has his own reasons to avoid prying eyes, is brought in and the narration alternates between his point of view and Lucy’s. It’s an effective technique and one that keeps you flipping through pages, despite the fact that the identity of the murderer is fairly well telegraphed in the first few pages. Lucy and the inspector make you want to know why it was done and, more importantly, what will be done about it.

But Farthing is also a book about fascism and the parallels between her Britain and today’s climate is never didactic and always effective. It’s also a book about husbands and wives, however, and about class and sex. It is quite an achievement, brothers and sisters. Hallelujah.