Thursday, 10 July 2008

Book Review

Owing to an unfortunately timed stomach bug yesterday (but, hey, I've done seven months without a day off sick. Seven months!) I found myself with more reading time than usual, and none of the books I was technically reading seemed to suit.

So I hit the pile, and found myself devouring Farthing, by Jo Walton (on loan from L, who as always knows exactly what I'll like). This is not a considered review; I read it far too fast for that. Actually, I'm not sure the book would benefit from a slower, more analytical reading. It was written fast (less than three weeks, the author says, which leaves me somewhat awe-struck), and in anger.

It's set in 1949, but not quite the 1949 we know. At school I was taught to call these counterfactual analyses; now I learn they're called Alternate Universes. The tipping point in Farthing's universe was 1941, where Britain standing all alone made a 'peace with honour' with Germany. Not that the differences are immediately apparent, as guests from the political elite gather for a country house weekend. It's no surprise when one of them is found with a dagger in his chest, the puzzle is that it took so long.

The chapters are divided between first-person narrative by Lucy, daughter of the hosts, and a third person narrative centred on Inspector Carmichael, the Scotland Yard detective sent down to Hampshire to tidy this mess up. But neither of them fits comfortably into this society. Lucy has married a Jew, and whilst this is not the Continent, and Jews are still allowed to go free, they find only bare tolerance. Carmichael has his own secrets.

But whodunnit is not really the point. As I said, these are the political elite, and a murder in these circles has consequences for the whole population of Britain. As Lucy says, "I wondered about the "extreme measures" [the new Prime Minister] meant to take, and shivered". With shocking speed, a happy ending for the novel ceases to be the unmasking of the murderer as everyone gathers in the library. The best the reader can hope for is the survival of favourite characters.

And the nauseating brilliance of it is the familiarity. I think every reader of Farthing could name the moment when the scales fell from their eyes. For some it will be ID cards, which I think was the author's main target. For me it was when inspector Carmichael reads a dossier on the corpse, who has most recently been Minister for Education. "Thirkie was sponsoring two bills in the House. One was the Higher Education Bill, expected to pass this session, limiting access to Higher Education to those educated in Preparatory and Public Schools. The second was the School-Leaving Age Bill, presently in committee in the Lords, lowering the school-leaving age to eleven in rural areas".

Not that the present Government are trying to lower the school-leaving age, rather the reverse. What I was so sickeningly reminded of was the current rush to vocational diplomas, promised to be as good as GCSEs and A-Levels. It may be that they require as much work, but what we seem to be doing is taking children and deliberately fitting them for a pre-determined job, which is perilously close to child labour. Education it isn't. Social engineering would be nearer the mark.

And it was my extremely traditional education that taught me to read between the lines, and to mistrust all governments. There may possibly be a connection here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Glad you enjoyed it (not that enjoyed is quite the right word, maybe). There's a sequel out in paperback this month - I shall be interested to see where she takes it.

Hope you're feeling better! If not, may I recommend Tooth & Claw?