It can’t happen here. (Or can it?)

What took me so long? I have finally finished reading Jo Walton’s 2006 alternative history novel, Farthing, subtitled A Story of a World that Could Have Been, Volume I of the Small Change trilogy. Walton has written two of my favorite novels—Among Others, which I reviewed on March 17, 2012, and The Just City, which I reviewed on July 21, 2020—so it shouldn’t have taken me so long to get around to Farthing. But it did.

So, as I said, Farthing is in the alternative history subgenre. In this case the precipitating event is FDR’s decision not to join the Allies in their fight against Hitler. As a result, the U.S. remains neutral, Lindbergh is elected president (shades of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America), the U.K. makes a separate peace with Germany, and antisemitism is rife on both sides of the Atlantic. This premise is certainly not original to Walton—I already mentioned Philip Roth, and there are similarities to Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here—but her perspective is her own. In particular, she focuses on the British upper classes and the slow rise of fascism in England. (Note that in Lewis, Roth, Walton, and actual history, fascists come to power through legal elections, not through a coup.) Walton’s protagonist marries a Jew, and most of the plot revolves directly or indirectly around this fact.

Of course the marriage doesn’t sit well with her aristocratic family:

There is a sort of comfort in being with people who think exactly as you do because they’ve been brought up exactly the same way and share all the same jokes. It’s a feeble kind of comfort and doesn’t last beyond seeing that you have nothing truly in common except that kind of upbringing and background.

At its heart, Farthing is a police procedural wrapped in alternative history. In some ways it feels old, taking place nearly 80 years ago, but in some ways it feels timeless or at any rate current. I was naturally struck by this paragraph:

The oldest one was called Tania. She was Russian, or anyway Ukrainian, which isn’t quite the same thing.

Anyhow, if you don’t mind genre-mixing, I heartily recommend Farthing. I have just started reading Ha’penny, Volume II of the Small Change trilogy. Fortunately it can’t happen here, where….

Categories: Books