Though a bit slower to start than I expected, Farthing was (overall) an outstanding allegory on fascism disguised as an alternate history novel disguised as a murder mystery. By the time you’re about one-quarter to one-third of the way through it, you will have trouble putting it down. The attention to the language is excellent1 and author Jo Walton pays peculiar attention to certain banalia like apparel, cooking, and eating.
The narrative structure follows a curious A/B pattern with odd chapters written 1st person (as Lucy Kahn) and even chapters written 3rd person (as Carmichael). It falls into a good rhythm that helps to control the pacing and the various reveals.
Walton’s use of the alternate history platform seems to be a device to cast the setting of the murder mystery. The chapters that follow Carmichael have a nod to the classic pulp mysteries2 and honor those tropes such as re-hashing the events of the crime and narrating through theories about that crime.
One thing I feel disinclined to comment upon is the plausibility of this alternate history. Walton gives an oblique nod to Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America3 that makes me suspect that if Roth’s alternate post-WWII world “works” then the story presented in Farthing could be grafted onto that timeline equally well. My knowledge of the WWII-era politics and military history run a bit thin however and I am hesitant to render an enthusiastic “it could have happened”. That said, there is a bit of fearful symmetry between Farthing and the post-9/11 United States; this seems especially the case as you race through those last fifty pages telling yourself that it will be all right, that there is still a chance for a happy ending, even as you turn into the last chapter.
- Though I found myself pining for a bit of Irvine Welsh-style slang and cockney. [↩]
- I’m thinking Raymond Chandler, in particular. [↩]
- Which I will admit that I have not read; but “the book jacket edition” sure informs the oblique reference to “President Lindbergh”. [↩]