Reading as a Writer: “Farthing”


Back in August I read an interview of Jo Walton by Leonard Picker in PW.  They discussed the last book in her alternate history trilogy, Half a Crown, and its predecessors, Farthing and Ha’penny.  This interview totally intrigued me and I clipped it, folded it into my wallet, and took it out again the next time I was in a bookstore.  I had intended to buy all three books in the trilogy, but the bookstore had only Farthing in stock.  I bought it and started to read it before sleep every night.

First of all, the chapters were the perfect length to read before turning off the light to sleep.  Second, Lucy Kahn’s voice grabbed me immediately on page one.  Two points of view alternate chapters, Lucy and Scotland Yard Inspector Peter Carmichael, whose voice is cooler, more objective, and fascinated by the “Farthing Set,” as is all of Great Britain in 1949, eight years after Britain signed a peace agreement with Nazi Germany.  Hitler now controls the European continent and continues to fight the USSR on the eastern front.  America never entered the war, and has almost no influence in Europe.  I won’t ruin the amusing surprise here as to who became US president in 1940….(smile)

At the end of chapter one, Lucy mentions that Sir James Thirkie, also a guest at the manor house, “Farthing,” owned by Lucy’s parents, has been murdered.  From that point on, author Jo Walton weaves a complex story of a murder investigation and the political intrigues that will lead to the election of a new prime minister.  The last third of the book chills progressively colder and colder as Walton reveals the goal of the Farthing Set.

The primary strength of this novel is its two point of view voices.  Walton establishes them so clearly and deftly that I looked forward to bed each night to spend some quality time with either Lucy or Carmichael.  Each contributes clues to solving the mystery of who murdered Thirkie, and also the clues to the blanket of lies and innuendos contributing to a sly but vicious cover-up.  Lucy provides insight and access into the upper class circle of people gathered at Farthing that weekend, and yet has become an outsider because of her choice of husband.  Carmichael provides the much-needed cynicism toward upper crust dominance while his partner provides the working class skepticism.  Both cops are smart but human and make mistakes and well as find ways to protect the innocent.

Walton builds her alternate England through thoughtful and specific details of human behavior as well as the political intrigues.  I couldn’t help but be reminded a bit of “Upstairs, Downstairs” at times, but that was a good thing.  She writes extremely well.

I absolutely loved this book, and I’m looking forward to reading the other two novels in the trilogy.  Anyone who enjoys alternate histories, especially about World War II, or the novels Fatherland and The Plot Against America, would probably enjoy these novels by Jo Walton.

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3 responses to “Reading as a Writer: “Farthing”

  1. This sounds fascinating. I’ll add them to my When I Graduate list. It’s growing unfortunately. Principles of Epidemiology is the only book consistently in my bag.

    I find the presentation of English detective stories persistently looking at Class, which seems to be their equivalent of our Race, for an inherited societal albatross.

    Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers mysteries examines the differences between the aristocracy and the working joe. Anne Perry’s Monk/Latterly or Deanna Raybourn’s ‘Silent’ books consider the well-to-do middle-class and the not-yet-considered-a-real-profession (i.e., the police). Why is it the two opposites always seem to find a way to work together, and grow to like and respect each other, even in the disapproval of their respective social peers? Would it be just as interesting if the two despised each other’s background? Or would that be too much of a distraction from the suspense of the mystery.

    Is it a fantasy on class-equality? George’s books even have the ‘upper class’ fellow working as a police officer, who in his not-quite-subconscious wants to be considered One of the Guys, and not The Earl.

    This social in/equality seems to be a favorite, or at least common, theme in English mysteries. A theme which I don’t see here in the states regarding class or race.

  2. I find Elizabeth George’s take on the Brits’ obsession with class differences particularly interesting because she’s American. I think it’s possible for the two characters to despise each other’s backgrounds but like each other as people. I think that’s very true about Lynley and Havers, although I think Lynley at times doesn’t much like his own background either. (smile)

    Yes, it probably is fantasy on class-equality and to emphasize that there are classes in Britain. I’ve thought it might be interesting to have the upper and lower classes still despise each other by the end of the story even though they’ve worked together. I think Jo Walton actually comes close to that in her novel — Carmichael and his partner don’t really like the Farthing set and their friends, but Carmichael forges a connection with Lucy because she feels like an outsider. Lucy is grateful to Carmichael and far more open to a different way of life than any of the rest of the upper crust characters.

    In the “Prime Suspect” series on PBS, race was addressed as well as immigrants and class differences — they hit everything, I think. It’s the only series I know of that does.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed Prime Suspect. They definitely hit the sex/race/class/immigrant issues. Helen Mirrim is an exceedingly talented actress, which of course drives the plot.

    Did you see her in Calender Girls? God, I wish I had a body like that – and she’s 20 years old than I am.

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