Jan 30, 2013

Ha’Penny and Half a Crown by Jo Walton

Ha Penny by Jo Walton Half a Crown by Jo Walton

Ha’Penny and Half a Crown are the second and third books in Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy – the first is Farthing, which I co-reviewed with Aarti earlier this month. The novels are alternate histories set in a Britain that made peace with Hitler’s Germany at the end of WW2, and then began to veer towards fascism. All three have parallel structures: they alternate a female first person narrative voice with third person chapters from the perspective of Inspector Carmichael, and the two points of view contrast with and complement each other. In Farthing we had Lucy Khan; in Ha’Penny there’s Viola Larkin, an upper class young woman from a Mitford-like family who has become a stage actress; and in Half a Crown we have eighteen-year-old Elvira Royston, a débutante and the daughter of Carmichael’s former colleague Sergeant Royston.

The books are also structurally similarly in that they all blend genres in surprising and exciting ways. In Farthing, Walton made use of the tropes of the cosy mystery to lull readers into a false sense of security; Ha’Penny mixes the political thriller with the theatre novel; and Half a Crown is a débutante story in addition to… well, I don’t want to give everything away. As for their settings, whereas Ha’Penny takes place only a few weeks after Farthing, the last book in the trilogy is set ten years later, at the beginning of the 1960s, when people who grew up in a fascist country are beginning to come of age. I realise I’m being pretty vague about each novel’s actual plot, but since I can’t say much about each of them without spoiling the previous one, I’ll leave it at that and just move on to the trilogy’s themes.

The alternate title for this trilogy is “Still Life with Fascists”, which is a very apt description of what it does: these novels are about stillness; about political inertia in the face of the unthinkable; about what can lead people to remain still and what can help them break free from that stillness. I love the fact that Walton gives every character both the potential to do horrible things and the potential to take a stance. Goodness and badness, cowardice or courage, are never oversimplified or essentialised. Even for characters who have made questionable choices in the past there’s always the next moment, the moment when they can make the choice they haven’t been able to make before. When I discussed Farthing with Aarti, I said the following:
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 was pleased to see that this was exactly the path the rest of the trilogy followed. Take, for example, this conversation between Carmichael and Abby Talbot. It’s a long quote, but well worth reading because I think it captures something that is central to these books (be warned, though, that it contains spoilers for Farthing):
“The real problem is that people mostly are perfectly happy with things as they are, or else too afraid to do anything. I sometimes wonder whether if things hot notably worse it would be an improvement, because they’d have to take notice.”
“And what would come of it if they took notice at that point?” Abby asked. “It would be too late for them to act. It is possible to make people brave, and clear-sighted, and open-eyed. I do it with my pupils. But I do it individually, and it’s hard work that takes years. I don’t know how to do it for a whole country, so that they’d look at what their government is doing in their name instead of ignoring it, and then throw them out instead of making excuses. But they have to have the power to throw them out if they do wake up to it. At the moment, the inertia and the institutions are still just about there. If we took them away, as they have been taken away in Germany, if we installed a king to rule over us by divine right, what would a waking-up avail but a massacre, as happened in Vienna two years ago?”
Carmichael had paced back the length of the room and found himself at the window; he turned back to her. “Every day I see men and women betraying their friends and families because they are afraid. It’s easy for me to despite them, but I do my job for the same reason. I betrayed Lucy and David Kahn when I had proof they were innocent, proof! But it wasn’t enough when nobody would accept it, when I was threatened myself.” He hesitated, wincing as he spoke, still bitterly ashamed ten years later and after all that had happened since. Not even to Jack had he talked about it this clearly. “They knew I’d warned Lucy, they knew about what they called my proclivities, they threatened me, they threatened Jack, they cut me off so I couldn’t have achieved anything by speaking out, and in the end I sold my soul to them.”
“It wasn’t the end,” Abby said, twisting on the sofa to face him head on. “Your soul is still your own. You know how to be brave. Think what you have done since, how many souls are alive and free in Ireland instead of slaves or dead on the Continent. You failed a test, yes, that one and perhaps others, but you have never surrendered your soul. And I believe it’s the same for the whole country.”
I love how these novels draw attention to the fact that ethical decisions are a continuous process, that being wrong is not a permanent state, and that good people often do bad things. The fact that we have access to Carmichael’s point of view means we get uncomfortably close to what it’s like to be complicit in a terrible regime even if you know in your heart how wrong it is. And in addition to Carmichael, we see people we agree with using extremely questionable methods for the best of reasons, generally unsympathetic characters surprising us at the last moment, and so on. It’s all messy, terrifying, and incredibly useful, effective political writing – much more so than a rigid separation between sides could ever be.

If you’re wondering how the rest of the series compares to Farthing, I’d say the first book is the one with the greatest emotional impact, but Half a Crown in particular is also an excellent novel. The way readers get used to the horrors of this world after the ending of Farthing is telling in its own right, and Half a Crown does something that I found very interesting: it gives us a narrator who grew up in a fascist Britain and has never really known anything else. There’s a lot Elvira doesn’t question, but because she’s observant, she eventually grows and learns. There is – slight spoiler ahead – a worthy discussion to be had about whether or not the final stance she and another character take defies credibility, especially coming from someone who was raised as they were, but the non-fatalist in me really wants to embrace the ending and to go along with everything that happens. Walton says in the acknowledgements that she wrote these books because she’s “always been a very hopeful and optimistic person”; as dark as they are, I can definitely see how that’s the case.

These books are currently a little difficult to find, especially in the UK, but according to Book Depository there are new editions coming out in May. I hope I have convinced at least some of you to give them a try.

They read it too: Stella Matutina (Ha’Penny, Half a Crown), The Literary Omnivore (Ha’Penny), Jenny’s Books, Shelf Love (Ha’Penny, Half a Crown)

(Have I missed yours? Let me know and I’ll be happy to add it.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.

13 comments:

Aarti said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed these, though it seems like you didn't love them *quite* as much as Farthing. I'll assume that is because you didn't have me to discuss them with ;-)

Your point about a character's final stance being realistic is something that I think often comes up in alternate history/sci fi/fantasy of this sort because one never CAN know, right, about what is realistic or not. But you have to at least hope that someone would do something unexpectedly wonderful.

Jenny said...

I'm with Aarti in loving Farthing the best, as I recall. But I'm delighted they're coming out with new editions later this year! Matching ones, perhaps?

So you weren't bothered by the ending of Half a Crown? I like an optimistic ending but this felt deus ex machina. N'est-ce pas?

Mystica said...

I read the triology and found them such intriguing reading. How they combined actual facts with the fiction was very cleverly done and it all came together very well.

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

Aarti: I know you're mostly joking, but you're actually probably right :D I always get so much more out of books when I discuss them with you.

Jenny: I had ALL THE MIXED FEELINGS about it - especially the Queen's role. On the one hand I found it... oddly moving, I guess?, and I really wanted to embrace it. On the other hand, I do completely see your point about the deus ex machina.

Mystica: Agreed!

Amy said...

I'll give them a try. I read two of Walton's books last year and really enjoyed her writing. Not much convincing needed for me!

Zibilee said...

I so want to read these books, and have put them on my wish list for when I have some book spending money. It sounds like they all tell amazing stories, and that the element of alternate history was done splendidly!

sprite said...

Jo Walton's Among Others was one of my favorite books last year, so I'll be adding these to my to-read pile. Thanks for bringing them to my attention!

Bina said...

You keep posting about these fabulous books, but my library still doesn't have them. It's a conspiracy to keep me from reading! :P Going to have to hunt down used copies, all your fault :D

anenduringromantic said...

"I love how these novels draw attention to the fact that ethical decisions are a continuous process, that being wrong is not a permanent state, and that good people often do bad things."

And that really is the heart of everything, isn't it? It's something that the greatest writers always achieve, I think - this sense of moral ambiguity that they leave you with. Off the top of my head, I recall two very different writers - Virgil and Guy de Maupassant - whom I've read recently, and both of whom accomplish this to perfection.

Geranium Cat said...

I've sort of skimmed through your post because I quickly decided that this sounds like a series to read. I haven't read any Jo Walton yet, but she's been on the list of authors I'm looking for for quite a while. Sadly the library doesn't seem to have any.

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

Amy: My favourite of hers is probably still Tooth & Claw, but this series is seriously awesome.

Zibilee: Do get them! You know Aarti and I wouldn't steer you wrong :P

sprite: You're most welcome, and I hope you enjoy them :D

anenduringromantic: Yes, absolutely.

Geranium Cat: Aw, that's too bad. Maybe they can be persuaded to get these once the reissues come out in May?

Joanna said...

I love alternate histories, especially related to WWII for some reason. Have you read Stephen Fry's Making History?

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

I haven't, but it sounds like something I ought to look for. Thanks for the rec!