Farthing: Heart-rending alternate history about British-Reich peace

Jo Walton's new alternate history novel Farthing manages the incredible, heart-rending trick of being a quiet little story about quiet, brave people while simultaneously conjuring the kind of haunting dystopia that rips your guts out.

In the Farthing timeline, Britain made peace with Hitler, through the intervention of a faction within the Tories called "the Farthing set," for the Farthing manor house on which they gather. Hitler has taken Europe and is warring on Russia, while Britain barely tolerates the Jewish refugees that have come to its shores.

The story opens with a weekend on the Farthing estate in 1949, and Lucy, the sole surviving child of the family that owns the estate, has come back to her girlhood home with her husband, David, a Jewish banker who escaped Hitler's France. David is cordially loathed by all present -- the Farthing set -- who nevertheless tolerate him with hypocritical good cheer.

Then the architect of the peace with Hitler is found murdered in his bed in Farthing manor, and all suspicion turns to David. Even those who suspect that this is a setup nevertheless choose to believe that it isn't, preferring to blame the interloping Jew to one of their number.

The story proceeds in chapters told by Lucy and chapters told by a likable, sharp Scotland Yard detective, but this is no detective story. It's a thorough study on evil, a meditation of how people betray that which is good for that which is expedient, or self-serving. It is never cynical -- the world of Farthing has at least as many heroically selfless angels as cheap sellouts, but where this book really goes on a tear is in showing how even the good can be easily boxed into doing ill.

Farthing is clearly a parable about Britain and America in the wake of the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, when commonsense, humanism, and a commitment to liberty and justice has been easily set aside in a fury of bloodlust and a dismal, shrugging apathy. Walton's deft touch is like Orwell's, tender but unflinching, and it's easy to see why she won the Campbell Award and the World Fantasy Award.

Once I hit the home stretch, the last hundred pages, I couldn't put this down. Like the last act of 1984, Farthing's conclusion inspires a simultaneous round of dread and hope that I couldn't walk away from. Few books have moved me as much as Farthing, it's one of those novels I'll be recommending to friends and returning to many, many times.

Sukey's rather like a cat in some ways, a slightly fussy cat like a Burmese or a Siamese, and that stroking always reminds me of a cat stroking its fur. She likes to have everything in its place, she likes her velvet and bobbles, but she's a superb manager. She's absolutely devoted to mummy, they're cousins, and they've been together since they were girls, and while Sukey's title is "secretary-companion," the "companion" added to show she's a lady and not a hireling, she actually organizes a tremendous amount for Mummy, the house, and political things as well. She keeps Mummy pointed in the right direction. Sukey stays on top of evertyhing that's going on and kind of briefs Mummy so Mummy can just sail through. They're like a swan: Mummy's the part on top of the water gliding along effortlessly and Sukey's the part below the water kicking frantically.

Update: Zhan points out the parallels between the fictional Farthing Set and the real historical Cliveden Set.