Hypocrisy in action! My reading this book, I mean.
It's one of those truisms in entertainment: If you want to attract attention, put some Nazis in your work. Therefore, I'm wary when it comes to fiction about WWII that has been written decades after the war. Most of the the time it's either fetishizing (sexually or otherwise) or sickly-sweet, bile-inducing holocaust kitsch (copyright for this expression goes to Maxim Biller, I think). I'm especially wary of AUs using WWII as a background – because are Nazis really necessary to tell your story? Do you really, really
have to appropriate the Holocaust to produce entertainment? Even if it's supposed to be a cautionary tale?
But even I can't always resist the lure of Naziploitation. And I have this terrible thing for British murder mysteries with a paranormal, AU, or dystopian twist. Even more so if they star queer characters.
So I'm happy to report that all my apprehension didn't prevent Farthing
from being a bloody spectacular book. And it's not exactly Naziploitation, either.
Walton uses an English country-house mystery to show a country's slow slide into fascism. Prejudices against Jews and homosexuals are already present in British society, and after Britain has forged the „Peace of Honour“ with Hitler in 1941, it doesn't take much to make them run rampant. The book's greatest feat is Walton's narrow concentration on the murder mystery, while fascist views and the situation on the European continent are simmering in the background, seeping in through the edges, making the reader feel more and more uncomfortable.
Walton's use of characters is excellent here: Lucy's rambling squirrel narration is at greats odds with the horrors and the war raging on the continent; I caught myself being amused and at the same time feeling that I really, really shouldn't be. Society's prejudices become most distinct through characters like Royston, the Joe Average of this tale: smart, capable at his job, sympathetic – anti-semitic and a homophobe. No one is without prejudice here, because, well, no one
is without prejudice. Farthing
is also extremely well written. There's a slight excess of adverbs, but that fits the English country-house atmosphere the book sets in the first half, before it becomes something exceedingly darker. It's a jarring transition from cosy murder mystery to political... not exactly thriller, but something more political all right. It isn't supposed to be easy. The ending finally earns some extra-kudos from me.
So, is the WWII background really necessary here? Is this the only way the story could be told?
I'd say no. I'd say there is an abundance of other ways to tell the exactly same thing – I've read them, too.
But I might be wrong.
Walton opens her story with the words:This novel is for everyone who has ever studied any monstrosity of history, with the serene satisfaction of being horrified while knowing exactly what was going to happen, rather like studying a dragon anatomized upon a table, and then turning around to find the dragon's present-day relations standing close by, alive and ready to bite.
Looking around me right here, right now, I already feel a bit bitten...
Now, where's the BBC adaptation of the Small Change