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Ha’Penny is solid alternate history with some unexpectedly pithy things to say about combating fascism and creeping totalitarianism.
Ha’Penny is a grounded take on the perennial question of what the world might have looked like if the Nazis had won. The ascendant Nazism of the book does not embody an occultic or supra-scientific prowess of other depictions: there is no nightmarish Eternal Reich of the popular imagination. Instead, by dint of alt-historical happenstance, America never enters the Atlantic theater and the British, wounded by the Blitz, sue for peace – leaving the Nazis the Soviet Union as its great nemesis. It is a Cold War where Nazi Europe and the Soviet Union are the opposing superpowers.
But Ha’Penny hits closer to home – it is Britain’s slide into fascism that is the novel’s concern. Walton manages to make this alt-history period novel remarkably contemporary by addressing themes of terrorism and the stripping away of civil liberties in the name of security: except that in place of Muslim extremists, the scapegoats are Jews and Communists. In Ha’Penny, we see a Britain slowly sliding into fascism as public anger is honed against Jewish terrorists and communists, and public fear is used to legitimise the curtailment of civil freedoms.
Despite these overarching themes being constantly present, Ha’Penny feels remarkably intimate in its storytelling. There are two main story threads featuring two main protagonists – a stage actress, Viola Lark, who finds herself at the centre of a plot to assassinate Hitler and the fascistic British Prime Minister, Normanby, during a production of Hamlet, – and a detective inspector, Carmichael, who is put on the case to unravel the plot before it happens.
The protagonists are set up as ironic foils to one another. Lark, a one-time child of aristocratic privilege, slowly becomes “radicalised” as she reconciles herself to the prospect of overthrowing dictators through force. Carmichael, whose homosexuality is used against him by his superiors as a Sword of Damocles to ensure his compliance, finds himself defending the very regime that would just as soon send him off to a concentration camp. While Carmichael’s characterisation is straightforward and compelling, Lark’s radicalisation process is more complex and murky – an odd cocktail of coercion, Stockholm Syndrome, self-rationalisation, and sexual attraction to her handler that seems like it could reflect the messy realities of today’s religious extremists.
There is a delicious tension, especially near the end, as the intertwined chapters balance reader expectations perfectly on knife-edge: will the plot to kill Hitler succeed or won’t it? The last fifty or so pages are unputdownable, more than making up for some slow moving parts of the earlier narrative.
And the ending is not as simple or final as you might expect. This is no feel-good revenge fest like Inglourious Basterds – there is no catharsis borne out of seeing vengeance served. The use of Hamlet as a motif strongly indicates the author’s bent, albeit in an after-the-fact sort of fashion. I really like Walton’s use of the ending to highlight the sobering reality of fascism: that it feeds upon violence, and is strengthened by crises it can externalise, onto groups that it can tell its citizens to blame and despise. A strangely apropos sentiment to read in a work – of alt-history fiction, nonetheless – in this funhouse-mirror, post-Brexit future that we’ve found ourselves in.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 peonies