Farthing

I finished reading Farthing by Jo Walton two days ago. I didn’t gulp it down like I did with Dust. While Dust had a lot of interesting ideas and characters, and I very much enjoyed its riffs on religion and The Tempest, at its heart, the novel is an adventure yarn. Once the action and characters got going, I didn’t want them to stop.

Farthing is not that kind of story. Yes, it has its own kind of tension – a grip that slowly and ever so slightly squeezes as events unfold – but at its heart, the book is a meditation on politics, class, discrimination, and power. Ostensibly, it is a murder mystery that drives the story, but it is the motive for that murder that is the real center of the novel.

I’m getting ahead of myself though. Understand that the world in which Farthing takes place is an alternate earth in which Britain made peace with Germany during World War II. Britain would remain inviolate, but the continent would stay in Germany’s hands (although still contested by Stalin). A decade passes and then a murder takes place – it’s victim? The key broker of the peace. Political assassination is the obvious motive, but as the novel progresses, complications become evident, layers are unearthed.

Two viewpoints tell the tale. We get to both look over the shoulder of an inspector from Scotland Yard and read a first person account of a daughter of the house in which the murder takes place. Both viewpoints are problematic for the society in which the characters live. The daughter is married to a Jew who is the primary suspect, and the inspector… I’ll keep his secret. Midway through you discover his reasons for being cautious.

Both characters have reason to fear what is slowly happening to England; the ascent of fascism in the name of fighting fascism, terrorism, communism. They must fear the lengths and measure people in power will go to justify and implement… well… evil. I can’t think of a better name for it.

As I said, I finished reading Farthing two days ago, and I find myself still thinking about it. In the immediate aftermath, I thought to myself that it was a good read – not something I would typically pick up, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. At the same time, I wondered if it was worth all the award nominations. But the more I reflected, the more my appreciation of the story deepened for its craft, story, and message. And then just yesterday, it really came home.

I was driving a coastal highway. The view was gorgeous – there was the Pacific pounding against the shore and a pleasantly windy road to follow in the car. I saw signs warning of construction, and I slowed down. Ahead was a tunnel under construction. How cool! I’d never seen anything like it before. Machines and people were clustered around a large hole in the hillside, recent concrete shoring up the structure. It was fascinating – I wanted to stop and take pictures. To ask if I could look around. Permission was unlikely, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask, right?

Well, yes it might. A tunnel under construction and an Arab asking questions, taking pictures? Do I have to spell it out?

In journalism, it’s called the “chilling effect”. Someone doesn’t file a story, not because of actual censorship, but for fear of consequences. It manifests as fear of ostracization or getting fired, pressure from above to squash the story, etc. In the aftermath of September 11, I felt a chilling effect. In many ways it was understandable. All the double-takes, people staring, etc. Something terrible had happened, and people were in shock. What was once thought of as mundane suddenly took on new meaning, and people’s filters became skewed. Whatever the reason, I stopped photographing for a year afterwards. Too many questions, too many uneasy people. But eventually the feeling of being a source of suspicion faded. Not going through airports, of course, but on the street, yes. The incident with the tunnel though, it makes me mindful that the suspicion is still there, only now faded into the background.

Now, you could say that I’m being unfair to the construction workers, assuming a reaction that I have know idea is really there, and you might be right. I don’t know for certain that I would be viewed with suspicion at all. My point though is my own reaction. There is a noticeable effect in progress, and it is a direct result of both the cultural and legal aftermath of September 11.

Plus, you get looked at enough times, and you learn to expect suspicion. It doesn’t happen as often now, thankfully, but given the right mindset, I bet it would. Which is, I think, the point of Farthing. That people will compromise themselves and their ideals, that they will stoop to the vilest of options in the name of fear. In the battle of us vs. them. Even when them and us are the same, just different kinds.

I remember being one of those people who believed in American rule of law. There was too much history behind it to allow it to be abused. I was naive, and I underestimated the power of fear. The willingness of people to resort to violence as the simplest solution. Of course, that’s only an illusion. Violence will forever be the most complicated solution. As the Tao Te Ching says, “thorn bushes grow in the wake of a great army.” In a U.S. where people are actively defending water-boarding, where the U.S. government hasn’t backed away from its repressive practices enacted in the aftermath of September 11 and there are still people detained without trial, the world of Farthing doesn’t seem so far away.

So, is Farthing a good story? Yes, the plot is interesting and the characters are real as are their motivations, thoughts, and actions. Is Farthing a great book? Again, my answer is yes. It’s thoughtful and quietly explores what humanity is capable of, for both good, ill, and in-between.

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~ by Samer on January 25, 2008.

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