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Farthing by Jo Walton: a ramble

This book came with a recommendation by Ursula Le Guin on the cover  "If Le Carré scares you, read Jo Walton"  it said.    So, here is a quote from one of my very favouritist authors, referencing one of my other very favouritist authors?  Ooo!

It starts out as very much a Dorothy Sayers type country house mystery, full of charm and interesting layers and dubious characters.  Awesome, another favorite author, and done pretty well!   And echoes of JIM Stewart too.    And then it twisted and turned and ended up in alternative-history seriously scary Britain Slides into Naziism territory.   Definitely well written and very compelling.

But.  When it came right down to it, I didn't believe it.    I didn't believe in Churchill silenced and overruled in 1941, I didn't believe in taking Rudolph Hess seriously, I don't believe in a British working class that lies down like that to be exploited,  I don't believe in a British educated class that can still remember the First World War that would try it.  I don't believe the British aristocracy was ever that unified, that evil, that separate, or that broken.  Why would they be?  They lost a generation of their young men too.

There's still a huge difference between regretting a won war from safe land never touched by an invader, and regretting a horribly unsuccessful one among the ruins of your homeland.

Maybe I'm lying to myself.  Maybe I'm too optimistic about human nature, and it really was that close.  But I still don't believe it.

I don't think Le Carré, even at his angriest (and that is pretty damn angry), is quite as black as the end of Farthing.  I don't think any of his villains (or heroes) are quite that unredeemed and uncomplicated.

One thing I love about Le Carr
é is that terrible moment when it turns out that Karla the Soviet idealogue loves his daughter and will give up his ideological position to save her, and that Smiley, the self-defined decent man full of doubt realises how far he's fallen by taking ruthless advantage of that.    The real villains in Farthing would never do that.

Le Carr
é writes from a position in the middle of things, somehow.  His position is quintessentially European and... I originally wrote British, but I think actually, in this case, I really do mean English. Like Tolkien, he seems somehow  grounded in the twentieth century with all its nightmares.  His darkness isn't as dark, but for me, it's realer, I think.


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
6th Nov, 2015 21:59 (UTC)
I knew there was a reason I hadn't picked Walton up...
6th Nov, 2015 22:18 (UTC)
You might like 'Among Others'. I did. And her sub-Arthurian novels are dark in places, but not quite so gloomy. But yes, Farthing I think would probably annoy you, well written though it is.
6th Nov, 2015 23:32 (UTC)
I had the same reaction to Farthing. It's charming and immensely readable, and I think the dual narrators worked well, but in the end I just didn't quite buy this alternative history.

I think the problem gets worse rather than better as the trilogy goes on, too.
7th Nov, 2015 09:30 (UTC)
I've been thinking about it, and I think if the ending had convinced me, I'd have been able to accept the improbability of the set-up.

If Carmichael had not given up, but had, for example, gone to Churchill with his evidence, or Bevan and Attlee and Foot, if Walton found Churchill too hard to put in that role, then that would have worked for me. I was really hoping for a triumph of human courage that would set things, if not right, then righter.
7th Nov, 2015 11:13 (UTC)
Here from LJ promoted posts
One of the things I find interesting about the trilogy is the way Walton has said it expressly derives from reading Josephine Tey, in which the Second World War appears to have happened (the odd character's relative or dentist has died in a bomb blast) but it has had absolutely none of the effects the real WWII had - no rationing, no landscapes shaped by bombing, even in industrial towns, no military experience on the part of any of Tey's male characters even one clearly of an age to have served. So that's why she postulated the Halifax carve up in 1940/1. But it's terribly inconsistent world-building, which is interesting given it was inspired by terribly inconsistent worldbuilding.
7th Nov, 2015 19:25 (UTC)
Re: Here from LJ promoted posts
Oh, really? I think I've only read The Daughter of Time, and didn't know that the series was inspired by Tey; it's nice to have a reasoning for the decision to go for 1941/2 as the division point.

I guess that a twentieth century AU is always going to be fraught because there's so much known, and it's relatively close and personal still.
7th Nov, 2015 19:31 (UTC)
Re: Here from LJ promoted posts
It's not helped by Walton making some inexcusable errors of detail; the most egregious of this is all the robin symbolism, which is all tied into the farthing coin and which is used on the corpse. Except that the actual farthing never bore a robin on it; it bore a wren, which was because the wren is one of the smallest British birds and the farthing was the smallest coin.
7th Nov, 2015 19:45 (UTC)
Re: Here from LJ promoted posts
I assumed that was just an AU being AU. I don't mind that really, perhaps it can be a token that the worlds diverged before 1941?

But for the worlds to have diverged so dramatically to have that kind of major social and political difference, that seems like it should have much more explanation than just a small signifier that things are very very different. The Farthing universe seems like it needs to have started much earlier to make sense.
7th Nov, 2015 21:05 (UTC)
Re: Here from LJ promoted posts
Unfortunately there are a lot of others which made me go "Nope. This isn't AU, this is just wrong" (baronets sitting in the House of Lords, forex, which would have meant that the point of fission would have had to have been at least James I era, since he created baronets as a cheap way of creating saleable hereditary knighthoods) or Southend having a view over the Channel (so add in a major landslip while you're at it. "Major" as in "has taken out Kent.")

Suspension of disbelief is hard enough in a historical AU as it without making it hard to distinguish worldbuilding from sloppiness.
8th Nov, 2015 08:04 (UTC)
Re: Here from LJ promoted posts
Ooh, I had missed Southend, good spot.
8th Nov, 2015 07:33 (UTC)
I tend to avoid most World War II AUs like the plague because I struggle with suspending disbelief on the subject, let alone allowing an author to convince me that their world makes sense. So I too think that I wouldn't believe in the Farthing world, no matter how well written it is.

But now I'm thinking about Le Carré. I think that the nearest he comes to unredeemed/unredeeming characters is in The Looking Glass War. It's probably his bleakest Cold War novel because it captures a particularly plausible scenario -- where the main characters can't quite remember whether they're fighting the current enemy (the Russians) or the enemy from the previous war (the Germans), and don't have the resources or support from home to actually design a workable plan of action but go ahead anyway because they're desperate to feel that they're still relevant, and when Smiley shows up briefly he's only there long enough to deliver the sad verdict that no one is going to rescue the protagonist from his suicidal mission because no one in charge at home cares enough to expend the political capital needed to save him. I don't need to suspend my disbelief at all for that scenario, but I can see why The Looking Glass War wasn't one of Le Carré's more popular books.
8th Nov, 2015 10:22 (UTC)
Looking Glass War is very sad, isn't it? And horribly believable. But I can believe in Control and Smiley sacrificing one man ruthlessly, without believing them entirely unredeemable. (though I agree, Control is probably as close as it gets to unredeemable, partly because he has no personal life at all)
8th Nov, 2015 09:41 (UTC)
I've always had high respect for Jo Walton as a reviewer and critic - even if I don't agree with an assessment it is always insightful and intelligent. And I really like her poetry, I wish she'd publish it formally, though it is all available on her website, which is very nice. But somehow her novels have never moved me. I enjoyed the subtleties and depth of "Among Others", and was amused by "Tooth and Claw", but neither really made much impression otherwise.
8th Nov, 2015 15:25 (UTC)
I liked Among Others a lot, but that was very much because I grew up in post-industrial South Wales and moved to Devon, so it was full of 'yes, it was just like that!' moments.

Whereas Farthing felt All Wrong not least because I could not square it with my grandfather (who fought in the second world war) talking about Churchill (Mad, but the only man for the job)

Those sort of powerful childhood associations are probably unfair things to put any author up against. I can't remember much about Tooth and Claw. Liked her AU-Arthurian series though.
12th Nov, 2015 23:34 (UTC)
I read Farthing years ago, and mostly remember it as a cross between a Georgette Heyer murder mystery and 'everyone's gay' slash fanfic. I enjoyed it, but not enough to reread it or find the sequel, and I don't think I thought about it more seriously than that.

I do like Brat Farrar, though, which I read because of it - even if it is quite obviously not set in this world!
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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