If you’ve read much of my blog, you’ll know that I have a soft spot for Jo Walton. Among Others is a book I love. I’ve recommended it countless time and bought copies as presents for just about anybody I could half-way justify. What Makes this Book so Great also left an impression. So much so I’ve started the world’s most infrequent (and least membered) book club.
When those lovely people at Corsair sent me Walton’s latest, I squeeeeed with excitement (on the inside at least). But publication was a while away and I’m forever playing catch up on my reading pile, so I left it to one side. It was a special treat awaiting my delectation. Yet somehow, whilst it sat there, the shelf started to bow under the weight of my expectation. I became convinced it was going to disappoint. I almost persuaded myself I didn’t want to read it. The obvious comparison with Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life started to put me off. How could it possibly be in the same league?
As an acolyte of Walton (a Waltonite?) I should have kept the faith. My Real Children is a masterpiece of understated brilliance.
The novel opens with the rambling thoughts of an elderly lady in a care home. Her sense of reality is confused. Stairs misplace themselves, lift doors appear where before there was only wall and did she have three children or four? Is she suffering from dementia, or is this something else? Is she remembering lives that never were, or did both happen?
The book is predicated on a simple ‘Sliding Doors‘ premise. Patty’s (rather peculiar) boyfriend asks her to marry him (in extremely unromantic circumstances). What happens if she says ‘Now’? What if she says ‘Never’?
The two stories then run concurrently, a chapter at a time. Each is mundane in its own way, but both are compelling and fascinating. It’s a beautiful examination of how decisions might come to define our lives, but it’s a whole lot more than that. Walton examines the role of women in the home and in academia, sexuality in the 1970s and the threat of nuclear oblivion. It describes the importance of family and humanity’s need to form a collective unit. In essence the book is a peon to love: platonic, familial and romantic. It also provides a crushing reminder that as well as being capable of great love, humans can also be violently destructive.
So where’s the SciFi?
Walton’s brand of science fiction fantasy is delicate and subtle. Among Others contains references to fairies, but the real sorcery is in the power of books and the magic of libraries. Clearly, in My Real Children, we have two alternate realities. Walton cleverly dovetails these into wider conterfactual realities. So real are the stories Walton is telling, time and again I found myself puzzling over a wider historical inaccuracy, before kicking myself; this is a world of fiction. Some of the book is rooted in reality, whilst other branches shift under the moving sands of history. It’s a great device, pulled off expertly. They could have easily overwhelmed the delicate plot, but the speculative fiction elements never jar the reader away from the central story. If Among Others was fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy, this is science fiction for people who hate, abhor and would never ever read science fiction.
I absolutely, completely and without reserve loved My Real Children. It’s a wonderfully clever book. Moving in the extreme. Nothing much happens, yet the stories told are utterly compelling. This is fiction of the highest quality and deserves to be read as widely as possible. Be warned. If you know me, this is what you’re getting for Christmas.
Many Thanks to Grace and the team at Corsair for sending me a copy of this wonderful book.