Reshuffling History’s Deck

By Saul Austerlitz

Published March 09, 2007, issue of March 09, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Farthing
By Jo Walton
Tor Books, 320 pages, $25.95.

The alternative-history novel — in which the now-familiar progression of events is rendered unfamiliar by rips in the fabric of the past — fulfills an essential need to which only literature, or another of the arts, is capable of administering. Considering that the world is the way it is, how would it look if history had turned out differently? Such books as Robert Harris’s “Fatherland,” Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” and Jo Walton’s “Farthing” aim to reshuffle history’s desk in order to shock us into recognizing the ultimate contingency of the world we live in. All three of the aforementioned books share another trait: Each seeks to recast World War II to give the Nazis the upper hand, or at least to allow Hitler and his minions to avoid the total destruction they actually received.

For “Farthing,” peace comes early to England, with the Farthing Set — an ambitious group of young right-wing patricians — reaching a “peace with honor” with Hitler sometime after the battle of Dunkirk. Abandoning the Hitler problem to the continental European nations, which have been entirely overrun by the Nazis, England in 1949 basks in an easily won peace as the Nazis and Soviets slog out an endless war in the East, the State of Israel remains a far-off hope, Charles Lindbergh is president of the United States (as in “The Plot Against America”), and the Jews of Europe suffer and die in Nazi camps. Winston Churchill, permanently frozen out from power, is left to complain that “this Farthing peace isn’t worth a farthing,” but the English as a whole seem content to leave things just as they are, Jews be damned.

All this information is parsimoniously parceled out, as if accidentally, at judicious intervals. “Farthing,” like its predecessors, places its foreground (the alternative history) in the background, peopling its foreground with a country house murder mystery firmly in the vein of “Gosford Park” and Agatha Christie, complete with disgruntled servants, erotic intrigue and a widely disliked victim. The country house, as it turns out, is called Farthing, and the dead man is Sir James Thirkie, architect of the peace with Germany. He and his wife, Angela, have been the weekend guests of the powerful and well-connected Eversleys, owners of Farthing and parents of Lucy, a headstrong 20-something who has recently scandalized the members of her parents’ set by marrying David Kahn, a Jewish banker and micro-financier. The European situation means that becoming Mrs. Kahn means never visiting Paris again, but it also means a life of carefully calibrated antisemitism and calculated snubs, as when Lady Angela Thirkie mistakes David for a household servant.

When Sir James is found dead with a yellow Jewish star pinned to his chest, the ability of Scotland Yard investigator Carmichael is required. Himself a closeted gay man in a time when exposure means public ostracism and a lengthy prison term, Carmichael is sympathetic to Kahn, upon whom suspicion naturally falls. Has the quasi-aristocratic Jew struck a blow for Europe’s Jews against the man who sold them out in 1941? Or has a shady cabal of Jew haters sought to pin the blame on Kahn while reaping the benefits of Thirkie’s death? “Farthing” alternates chapters between Carmichael and Lucy, first person and third person, his and hers, upper class and working class, investigator and suspect. Carmichael’s investigation proceeds in fits and starts, getting lost in the thickets of petty personal beefs, political machinations, and the conscious and unconscious prejudices of all parties involved. While his superiors push him to arrest Kahn, Carmichael investigates other, darker possibilities regarding the identity of Sir James’s killer.

While the reversal of foreground and background in novels of this kind often leaves readers thirsting for more explication of the milieu, and less plot, “Farthing” ably juggles its murder and its essential mystery. David seeks to out-English the English in an effort to be accepted, and remains foolishly obstinate about the nature of the danger he and his people face. We are torn between rooting for him to be found innocent and for him to actually be guilty of murdering the proxy Jew-killer Thirkie in the hopes of waking up a somnolent country. England is asleep in “Farthing,” drifting peacefully toward a homegrown fascism that countenances Nazi-style antisemitism in the name of public order. Whether there is any hope left for an England so enamored of its own comfort is the substance of this novel, whatever its plot may be. And the horrors of this world, almost entirely etched between the lines of its mystery, are those of passivity and inaction. Sometimes, rarely, peace is far, far worse than war, and the unheard scream of the Jews of Europe, incapable of crossing the Channel, is the loudest sound in “Farthing.”

Saul Austerlitz is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.