The Stone and the Grist: Jo Walton’s Farthing

This is a book gathered dust on my shelf for years. I bought it on the strength of Walton’s Tooth and Claw, a wonderful novel that “Jane Austen, but if the characters were dragons” does only the smallest service to. This on has languished untouched due to it being an alternate history, a subset I’m a hard sell on for reasons I won’t get into here. I finally pulled it out due to a critical mass of positively comments from too many unrelated sources to ignore any longer. Now I’m annoyed with myself for not having done so sooner.

It’s a book difficult to do justice to without giving it away, which I’m explicitly not interested in doing, but it’s difficult to discuss without at least a passing mention of the plot. It’s rooted in the long tradition of WWII what-ifs though with overtones that place its sensibilities firmly in the 2000s. The distance of history is a benefit; Walton is able to let the story breathe and the implications build. It would be interesting to put it side by side with Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta or something similar, to see how well it holds up.

While the publisher no doubt released Farthing as science fiction to take advantage of Walton’s existing genre audience, I’m not convinced that did it a service. I argue that Farthing would be as comfortable in general fiction, or in mystery. It’s tied to science fiction only in the way the story unfolds; Walton is well versed in the genre’s world-building tricks, which serves this story well. Rather than a treatise on the politics and subjecting the reader to a redrawn map, we get bits and drabs from newspapers as the characters drink their morning tea and think about something else. The casual conversations reveal prejudices in ways that intensify the social picture.

The story is told in alternating chapters from the heads of two characters, each with their preoccupations forefront. Odd chapters follow Mrs. Lucy Khan, an “English Rose” who had the audacity to marry a wealthy London Jew (or, alternately, was unfairly stolen away by one). She is the daughter and only surviving child of Lord and Lady Eversley, both core members of the Farthing Set, the group at once lauded and notorious for negotiating a truce with Hitler. The even chapters follow Carmichael, a Scotland Yard Inspector with the unenviable task of investigating the murder of Lord James Thirky. Thirky, favoured as the next Prime Minister, died at a gathering of the Farthing Set and other notables at Farthing House, ancestral property of Lord and Lady Eversley, on the eve of a major election.

It’s a book that plays out as a murder-mystery. I have read only a few mysteries in my time, those few and far between, so I am a poor judge of how well it stands up on that front. I can say, though, that it highlights the microcosm well, showing the slow creep made up of willful blindness, prejudice, and the lengths to which some will go to gain the advantage. It is also, as one might expect given the political situation, about how decent people are made complicit. The first half of the book is slow, taking its time to build, eventually together into something I had a hard time walking away from.

The characterization succeeded in making me uncomfortable, particularly the rampant bigotry on display. It was appalling its ordinariness. Lucy and Carmichael are both vehicles for examining deep-seated and pervasive views, her as the newly-sensitive wife of a Jewish man, and him in his role as Inspector, privy to the worst of it. The revelation that neighbors and customers can be the ones quickest with the stones comes as a shock to Lucy, while Carmichael knows personally how having the wrong background makes one vulnerable.

Suffice to say, before I start spilling plot all over the place, this one will stay with me. I’m still thinking about it a week later, enough that it took a week to pare down my thoughts in writing. If anyone else is sufficiently intrigued to pick it up, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.