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by Jo Walton
Tor, July 2008
336 pages
ISBN: 0765358085

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The first volume of this trilogy, FARTHING, imagines a Britain in 1948 in which the war between Nazi Germany and Britain ended in 1940 with the conclusion of a peace treaty between the two countries that allowed Germany free reign in Europe while Britain would maintain its empire and support the war against the Soviet Union, a war which is still sputtering on at the time of the novel. The peace treaty was concluded at the urging of a group called The Farthing Set, a small, highly placed, upper-class group clearly modelled on the actual Cliveden Set that Claude Cockburn called "Hitler's Fifth Column."

In this second installment, Viola Lark (née Larkin), actor and earl's daughter, tells the story of her involvement in a plot to kill Hitler, who is visiting London on a good-will tour that will take him to the theatre in which she is playing Hamlet as well as to Wimbledon.

Viola, named like her five sisters for a Shakespearean heroine, is part of a family modelled closely on the Mitfords. Like that real family, the Larkin sisters are deeply divided. One has been to Moscow and become a Communist. Another went to Berlin and married Himmler (Heinie to his friends). Unlike Viola, the others have married "well" if not necessarily happily and lead essentially conventional lives. Like the narrator of FARTHING, a young woman who married a Jew, Viola is a non-compliant daughter of the upper class. Her stuffy mother, outraged when Viola goes on the stage, refuses to have anything to do with her. In spite of her life in the theatre, Viola has remained something of an innocent, absorbed in her own career, but it is an innocence that will be abruptly shattered in large measure because of the family from which she comes.

Viola's first person account of the events alternates with a third-person narrative centred on Detective Inspector Carmichael who is investigating a mysterious bomb blast that killed another actress, cast to play in the same production of Hamlet in which Viola is taking the title role. Carmichael, a closeted gay man living with his "valet," first appeared in FARTHING, where his homosexuality provided a lever to force his complicity in the cover-up of a crime. Disgusted with himself, he now plans to leave Britain at the conclusion of this case.

The first novel in the series was an ingenious blend of speculative alternative history and social comment with an appropriately conventional manor house mystery of the Golden Age sort. Here we have less mystery and more thriller of the race-against-time-variety, but both of them are intriguing in the sorts of moral questions they raise and in the reflections upon the present moment that they give rise to. Walton imagines that time stopped for Britain when it signed the peace pact with Hitler, at least in terms of social history. Whereas the Second World War in fact virtually bankrupted the real Britain, this one is relatively prosperous. But the actual post-war period was one of immense social change, while in Walton's 1948, the poor live in "almost Dickensian" squalor, the rich can afford enormous staffs of servants (many of whom are Jewish, as the general anti-Semitism hinders their entry into less servile occupations), and society as a whole appears to function largely on the basis of a complicit agreement to overlook injustice and the decay of civil liberties.

Most of the characters are studiously indifferent to the European concentration camps, the genocide, the slave labour; all agree that "the Jews and the terrorists" are a menace that justifies almost any measure of political control. It is an atmosphere that precludes heroism, or even moral behaviour. Viola Lark is a sympathetic character, but what she gets involved in is dubious in the extreme; Carmichael is an upright and effective policeman, but he is upholding a regime that is morally corrupt and he knows it. There are no satisfactory resolutions to these dilemmas for either the characters or the reader, but we remained engaged nevertheless.

The final volume in the Small Change trilogy has recently appeared and is set twenty years on from the first two. I certainly look forward to finding out how Walton will conclude her disturbing and involving counter history.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, January 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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