Jan 7, 2013

Farthing by Jo Walton

Farthing by Jo Walton

Jo Walton’s Farthing is the first book in her Small Change trilogy, a series of alternate history novels set in a world where the UK made peace with Germany and the Nazi regime spread to most of Europe. Farthing opens with the murder of Sir James Thirkie, a politician responsible for the peace negotiations, and at first the novel seems to follow the tropes of the cosy country house mystery. But as the story progresses and the reader and the characters alike realise just what is at stake politically, things take a much darker turn.

As I told you a few days ago, Farthing was one of my favourite reads of last year. I read it along with Aarti and Kelly, and below you can find the second part of our joint review (the first part is over at Aarti’s blog). You’ll no doubt notice that poor Kelly disappears from the discussion about halfway through – this is because she had a problem with her wrist and couldn’t type at around the time we were finishing up.

Farthing was a great novel to co-review, as it gave us the opportunity to talk at length about totalitarianism and the circumstances that can cause people to become complicit in corrupt political systems, among other things. I hope you’ll enjoy reading our discussion, and don’t forget to head over to Booklust for part one.

Ana: Something else I wanted to ask you is whether you have any thoughts on the representation of gay and lesbian characters in the novel. I have a few of my own, but I'll let you both go first!

Aarti: I have a feeling this will come out much more in future books in the series. I found the way Lucy referred to LGBT as being “Macedonian” or (was it Greek the other one?) as interesting. I wasn’t sure if she was saying it that way to make light of the situation or to distance herself from it or if she really was using those phrases because she thought they were fun and a more ambiguous way of speaking about something that most people were trying to keep well hidden.

I appreciated that Walton presented characters of all sexual orientations in this novel, though sometimes I thought she tried too hard to include a representative from every camp. I don’t think, given the circumstances of the time, that people would have been quite so open about such a personal thing as they were in this book, or that they would accept their behavior if most people thought it was wrong. Lucy in particular I found a bit hard to believe in this instance - she seemed so naive in her approach to sexuality and how it affected her. It was refreshing to see it matter so little to her, but I also don’t know if it was completely believable.

Ana: Historical accuracy is actually something that has been on my mind lately, because just last week I came across a really great post that examines it in relation to the representation of women in speculative fiction. This is a different situation, of course, but I can see how some of Tansy Rayner Roberts’s arguments might be useful in this case too. Farthing portrays the rise of fascism in an alternate history world, and I can see how a politically oppressive society where the gay and lesbian characters were met with nothing but acceptance might be historically inconsistent and difficult to suspend our disbelief about. We know what WW2 era fascism was like; we know what happened to homosexuals in concentration camps; we know this was not exactly a society where tolerance was widespread.

But that’s not what Jo Walton does, so personally I didn’t find that aspect of Farthing difficult to believe. Lucy is accepting of her husband and brother’s romantic involvement, and it’s true that we don’t have a way of knowing how many young women from her time period and background would do the same in her situation. But I think that even in the real 1940’s there would be some who would, and including their stories in our mental picture of the era is worthwhile. When I read books like Virginia Nicholson’s Among the Bohemians, for example, I realised that ideas, life philosophies and worldviews we strongly associate with the 21st century were in fact already around in the first few decades of the 20th century, even though they were subversive and very much marginalised.

So even if tolerant, open-minded people like Lucy were uncommon in this period, I kind of want fiction to acknowledge that there were at least some of them around, because to do so complicates the dominant historical narrative in a way that I find useful. Just like I don’t want every story about women in the past to be full of misogyny (even though misogyny was widespread), I don’t want every historical gay or lesbian character to encounter intolerance at every turn, because even though it happened a lot it didn’t happen all the time. I hope this makes sense!

Aarti: You make perfect sense, but I am not sure if I was clear. I agree that just because a belief is widely held, that doesn’t mean that everyone in fiction should embody it. There are obviously nuances to everything and Lucy is nothing if not an unconventional person. It wasn’t so much her acceptance of her husband and her brother’s sexuality that was hard for me to believe. It was just her attitude towards the whole situation (or lack thereof, it seemed). She was quite open about everything, and I just thought she would have been a little more cautious in talking about things. Not that she should feel uncomfortable broaching the topic with her husband, but she just seemed quite cavalier to me about the whole situation which, in the circumstances, seemed a little dangerous.

But so much about Lucy was a surprise to me! And I don’t mean that I disliked her at all - I found her lovely. Like I said, she really was so refreshing and so determined to be kind, even in such horrible circumstances. I started the book thinking that she was a bit dim, and I ended it thinking that she was a very strong and brave person.

Ana: Yes, I see what you mean now. But I wonder if perhaps her lack of caution goes hand in hand with what we were discussing earlier - people not being aware of how dangerous their situation really was, or just refusing to believe it because it was too horrifying. Just like Lucy didn't believe that David was in any danger from her family until it was almost too late, she might not have believed that sexuality could have been used against him so destructively, in the way we see happening to other characters.

Aarti: Yes, that’s a good point. She seemed determined to think the best of every situation until much later in the book, when she finally woke up and took things into her own hands.

Ana: We talked quite a bit about Lucy, but not so much about the other point of view character, Inspector Carmichael. What did you think of him?

Aarti: I loved him. I think he was my favorite in the book, so I’m glad the whole series revolves around him. He was so driven to find the truth about the murder, but he had to be so careful not to share a very basic truth about himself. It made my heart ache for him. I wonder how much his decision to become a detective and to seek truth was influenced by his inability to be truthful about his life.

I also think Carmichael’s POV gave us a much more panoramic view of the world Walton created. Lucy was much more insular until the end, and it was only through Carmichael that we gradually came to see just how much oppression was happening and just how much rebellion was fomenting.

Ana: I loved him too, and like you I'm glad we're going to see more of him as the series progresses. I also found his narrative arc absolutely heartbreaking, and once again I think Walton did a brilliant job of demonstrating how ethical people can unfortunately become complicit in corrupt systems - because they're being blackmailed, because they've been put in a position of powerlessness, or a combination of both. Of course, realising you can't fight the system at a particular moment in time doesn't mean you will never be in a position to fight it, and I really look forward to seeing how Carmichael's story will develop as we read the rest of the trilogy.

I also agree with what you said - he gave us a wider perspective than Lucy, and the combination of the two points of view works very effectively. Through Lucy we learn what it's like to believe the sheltered life you've always lived will keep you safe; through Carmichael we discover what's going on politically, how far it reaches, and what the implications are.

Aarti: I’m so glad we read this book! Jo Walton has really bolted to the top of my Favorite Authors list and I think that going forward, I’ll probably just buy any book she publishes on sight. She’s so great at the dynamics - gender, class, sex, all of them! And brilliant at showing us our own strengths and weaknesses through the worlds she has created.

Ana: Perfectly put! I really look forward to reading the rest of this trilogy, and also to whatever Walton publishes next.

They read it too: The Literary Omnivore, Jenny’s Books, Shelf Love, A Good Stopping Point, Rat's Reading, Stella Matutina



  1. Wow! I've heard this book mentioned before, but really knew nothing about it. I can't even begin to tell you how much you all have made me want to get my hands on it! I just read a book that sort of dealt with some of the same things--largely how *not* impossible it would be for people who think they know better to become a part of something they despise. Though the book I read was not nearly as deep or complex. Thanks ladies, this conversation was awesome to read!

  2. I found the discussion that you both had about the sexual aspects rather interesting and it has raised my curiosity to dangerous, money spending levels! I do think that it's important for these types of issues to be raised in books that deal with totalitarian systems, and think that the particulars of what make this book work for the three of you is probably what would make it work for me. I am also intrigued by this Carmichael fellow, and am interested in finding out his secret, and what makes him tick. Excellent and broadly talented joint review today. I can see that this is one that I am going to have to read soon!

  3. Oh, I LOVE this book, and I'm so glad you did, too. The series is like most, I think, in that the second is weakest and the first is strongest. But one place where that isn't true is the in the area of the ideas and politics--they're all slightly different and they're all very strong, especially the personal/political dynamic. I'm so glad I got to read you guys chatting about it.

    If you ever get a chance to read Lifelode, that's another Jo Walton I really love. I think it was a limited print run, but I got a copy at my library, and it's a really wonderful domestic fantasy set in a world that's got some fascinating social AND physical qualities. I'd love to hear what you thought of it.

  4. It really is an excellent book, for all the reasons that your fascinating discussion brings out - I really must read the next one in the series.

  5. I read all three books last year and found them so good. A bit of fiction mixed with the history but handled very very imaginatively and kept me on tenterhooks throughout.

  6. What an awesome premise for a book! I had no clue what this book was about before this!

  7. Oh gosh. I really didn't know much about this book at all. You got my attention with "alternate history" and kept through your great discussion. Can I squeeze these in?

  8. Of course my computer troubles hit when this post goes up. It's like the universe is against me sometimes, but I'm here and I'm delighted.

    I love your point in the first post about how alternate history can shake us more more than actual history can, because we aren't allowed to go "Oh, well, that would never happen". I'm reminded of the ending of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

    As for queer representation in Farthing, I always giggle a little when reviews on, say, Goodreads or Amazon frown and talk about how that's not very historically accurate. First of all, of course it's accurate, and it's important to include it, for the reasons you list. Essentially: word, Ana. Word.

    Your love for Carmichael and the layered storytelling will pay off; it's the approach used, I believe, in the other two books.

  9. Alternate history, England and mystery??! I have to read this! And great discussion you two. Now I'm very curious about how LGBT characters and reactions to them are represented in the book.

  10. This books seems interesting. It's like unveiling more secrets in history. Stories that are more often untold.

  11. An interesting addendum. I attended Kit Johnson's inaugural Tolkien Lecture at Pembroke today evening, and this is the way she defined the distinction between SF and fantasy: In SF, the gap between our world and the world depicted can be bridged - it is possible to get from "here" to "there" - whereas in fantasy, by definition, that transition is impossible, given the world is as we know it.

    An interesting way of looking at it. I can't see anything very wrong with it outright.

  12. This looks fascinating - I love alternate histories. It reminds me a little of Michael Moorcock's Colonel Pyat quartet (which I still haven't read) and Sophia McDougall's Romanitas (which was great). Must go and look for this one.

  13. I just finished this book and went directly to wallowimg in other's thoughts about this, and this discussion was a great thing to come across. Really interesting, thoughtful points. Thank you.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.