In Defence of Libraries – ‘Among Others’ by Jo Walton

among others

Among Others by Jo Walton is a revelation. Winner of The Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C Clarke awards, it comes with strong endorsement, from the Science Fiction establishment.  Yet this is barely a science fiction novel at all. It is the best coming of age novel you could ever hope to read, and a strong contender for my favourite novel of 2012.

The central tale is slight; a brief snapshot of a complicated life. ‘Mor’ is a twin whose sister has died. Mor herself was badly injured and now walks with a cane and is in constant pain. The details of what happened are vague, but Mor’s mother is somehow to blame. To make matters worse Mor has been ripped from the comfort of the Welsh valleys, where she lived with her extended family. The courts have decided she must live with her father, a man Mor has never met. He is from a wealthy family and Mor will live in a large manor house during the holidays and attend boarding school during term time. Wherever she goes she does not fit in.

The saving grace in Mor’s life is books. In particular, science fiction. Mor cannot take part in games lessons, and so spends great swathes of time in the school library. Here, through science fiction and a tentative friendship with the school librarian, Mor starts to understand the world. Through the magic of inter-library loans she glimpses worlds beyond her own.

The novel is written in the first person and is stunning throughout. Running through every page and paragraph is a passion for books. Whilst Mor’s great love is SciFi, she devours anything printed. A meeting with her paternal grandfather spurs a departure into Plato, the librarian recommends Josephine Tey, and for school Mor has to read Dickens and Shakespeare. Her consumption is voracious, and her analysis carried out with laser precision. Mor is one smart teenager.

On the one day a week Mor is allowed out of school she heads into town. Here she visits the library and the local bookshop. Bibliophiles will well recognise the thrill that fills Mor when she is surrounded by books, the comfort she draws from them and obssesive quest for a new and interesting read. The book is a peon to the magic of libraries, and indeed, Among Others is dedicated to ‘all the librarians in the world…’ Through the library Mor finds a Science Fiction reading group, and from there a group of like-minded people. Through these interactions our narrator builds new confidence; she realises she is not alone.  Among Others should be compulsory reading for anybody who might be thinking of closing down a library.

It is tempting to suggest that Among Others clean sweep of science fiction’s major literary prizes, is down to Walton’s lovingly curated catalogue of the genre’s seminal texts. Like Walton, the people who award these prizes will have loved these books, and to see them glorified in print, will surely have set their spines tingling.

Whilst it’s true that the referencing of the genre’s greats lends an added dimension for fellow fans, without them this would still be a beautiful novel. My wife adored it too, and she may have heard of Isaac Asimov but Delany and Zelezny meant nothing. In addition to a perfect encapsulation of teenage angst, there is a masterful rendering of the part mundane, part bat-shit crazy combination that typifies most familial relationships.

Further nuance is added to the novel with light sprinkling of fantasy. Mor can apparently see and communicate with fairies. She is convinced she can do magic, that she saw the dead walk on Halloween and that her mother is a witch. There is an undercurrent of mental illness, never fully expressed, but bubbling beneath the surface, masked by our narrator’s belief in magic. The magic outlined is subtle, and could plausibly exist inside the imagination of a highly intelligent teenage girl. This could well be the most enchanting facet in this mesmerising gem of a novel.

Among Others is so effortlessly brilliant it’s hard to explain why, (though this hasn’t stopped me using several hundred words trying to do so.) It’s a book lovers book. It’s a book for anybody who doesn’t quite fit in. It’s a book for those who think a little fairy dust might improve the world. Magical yet grounded, Among Others is a triumph from start to finish.

Many Thanks to Sam and the team at Corsair books for providing me with a copy for review. A list of the books read by Mor during the novel can be found at http://pinterest.com/tinyampersand/the-books-of-among-others/

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