Churchill has been overthrown. England has agreed a peace with Nazi Germany. Democracy has slid into fascism.
The setting for this dark and harrowing read sounds mad to those of us sitting in this, the peaceful and tolerant version of the outcome of the 20th century. But how close the world was to turning on a different point!
Jo Walton couches her alternate history in that most stolid and contented of English genres, the detective novel. A peer has been murdered at a country house party, and one of the guests is the culprit. Unluckily for David Kahn, he’s the only Jewish man at the party, and in a 1949 where Hitler is alive and thriving across the Channel, that’s not good news. Worse still, the peer was a member of the aristocratic Farthing Set who helped bring about the peace with Hitler, and whose allies are champing at the bit to introduce more ‘effective’ measures of controlling the population of Jews, Bolsheviks, unionists, and other such undesirables.
The story alternates between a third-person narration of the Scotland Yard Inspector assigned to the case and the first-person narration by Lucy, David Kahn’s wife, the daughter of a peer who married ‘out of her race’. We are lulled by their rational, relatable voices into following blithely along with the case, believing that like an Agatha Christie mystery it will all turn out all right in the end. It slowly dawns on us that everything here will not work out for the best, that the identity of the murderers is less important than the political machinations at work, that this world is not comfortable and known and resolved.
I finished the book with the feeling that I’d been punched in the gut. It’s a brilliant and terrifying portrayal of the ease with which a country can follow the wrong people into dark and dangerous waters and the way that prejudices and hatreds can be fanned and fed until they outgrow the individuals. It left me with a creeping, darkening sensation of ‘There but for the grace of god…’
Grab this book from the library here.
Jo Walton is a brilliant English writer of the slightly-fantastic, who always brings something new to the table no matter what the subject matter. Other books of hers I’ve loved are Among Others and Tooth and Claw.
If you like this book, try: John le Carre (for England in times of strife), Graham Greene (for ordinary people in extraordinarily difficult situations), and Connie Willis (for matter-of-fact English fantasy).
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