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.