Review of Ha’penny – Book 2 of the Small Change series by Jo Walton


I have a real weakness for well told alternate histories and absolutely loved the first book, Farthing – see my review here – in this alternate Britain where we come to terms with Hitler’s Nazi Germany after initially joining the war. So in the early 1950s, the Nazi party runs Europe and is still fighting Russia and disturbing rumours percolate of death camps and gas chambers for any remaining Jews – although these are officially ignored or scoffed at.

However, the character who bounced off the page for me in Farthing – Lucy Khan – isn’t in Ha’penny. Would I still enjoy this book happenywithout such an outstanding protagonist? In a world where England has agreed a peace with Nazi Germany, one small change can carry a huge cost… Following the Farthing Peace, England appears to have all but completed an inexorable descent into fascist dictatorship. However when a bomb explodes in a London suburb, resistance seems to be underway. The brilliant but tormented Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard is assigned the case and uncovers a conspiracy of peers and communists to murder the Prime Minister and his ally: Adolf Hitler.

So there you have it – another murder mystery. Again, it has a real feel of an Agatha Christie whodunit during the investigative process where we follow Michael Carmichael’s efforts to discover who blew up a well-known actress and her companion. But under this apparently cosy surface is the darker underbelly of this novel – England is sleep-walking towards a dictatorship and Walton makes this seem chillingly plausible. For those of us who might bluster it could never happen here, in the cradle of democracy – just see how it’s done. A weakened opposition, a population demotivated to care overmuch about the political process – and an underclass feared and hated by almost everyone and used as a convenient scapegoat by politicians for the financial stagnation and hardship the country is suffering. In Ha’penny it is the Jews – but insert any other social minority that may spring to mind… Because when I read this book, I became aware that Walton isn’t writing about the past – she is flagging an urgent warning about the present. This book series should be required reading in all schools and colleges in my opinion – democracy is fragile and particularly in this country, I think we are waaay too complacent about our political system.

However, this book is a dual narrative – and alternating with the chapters where Carmichael is attempting to track down the bomber, is Violet Larkin, an actress from a high-born family raised in a draughty castle. Her parents’ desperate wish for a son to continue the family living at Carnforth Castle means there are six girls. They didn’t go to school, or indeed, receive much attention at all. So were largely left to their own devices. Viola describes a childhood where the siblings spent hours together playing or feuding, before adulthood scattered them. The family are, apparently, loosely based upon the Mitfords.

Viola rejects the life of a debutante to become an actress and is officially snubbed by her family, although her sisters do keep in touch from time to time. Celia marries Himmler and is living in Nazi Germany, while Siddy has become an active communist and tries to persuade Viola into helping with a scheme to try to bring about the end of the Third Reich. However, Viola isn’t interested – she’s apolitical, assuming that what the papers say is right. Her heart and soul is wrapped up in her acting career and she has just landed a plum part. In the current fashion for gender swapping classic roles, Violet gets to play Hamlet… And furthermore, the Prime Minister will be attending with a distinguished visitor – Adolf Hitler is on a state visit to the country and will be coming to see the play.

I lost my heart to Lucy Khan by the second page of Farthing – it took me a little longer to fully bond with Viola Larkin. She is a far more nuanced, complicated character, who has weathered a tricky start in life to find her own personal haven and is very reluctant to give it up and face what is going on around her. Throughout the book, she gradually begins to realise the truth of the situation – and then is confronted with the question, what should she do? Walton’s exceptional writing drew me right into the heart of Viola’s dilemma – and while my jaw dropped at her initial reaction, it didn’t take me long to realise that it was absolutely plausible.

I may have given the impression that this is a somewhat grimly turgid political tome, with a slight leavening of a whodunit adventure. Nothing could be further from the truth – Walton is always all about entertaining her reader and ensures that the storyline is king. It is what she also manages to pack between the lines with her sophisticated, understated prose that makes her a shining talent. And this book is every bit as gripping and suspense-filled as Farthing – and leaves Inspector Carmichael with a spiffy new job, heading up the British equivalent of the Gestapo… I can’t wait.

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