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Book Review: My Real Children, by Jo Walton

“She wasn’t famous then,” Pat said. “Nobody is. You never know until too late. They’re just people like everyone else. Anyone you know might become famous. Or not. You don’t know which ones will make a difference or if any of them will. You might become famous yourself. You might change the world.” — Jo Walton’s My Real Children, pp. 12-13

I’ve been hearing buzz about Jo Walton‘s new book for several months now; it got a favorable review in the May edition of Locus, on i09 and in other places where I go to see which genre books I ought to add to my ever-growing reading list. Walton’s last novel, Among Others, won the Hugo and the Nebula awards for Best Novel in 2012, and though it did pass through my hands in 2011 I can’t honestly say I’ve read it in the sense of having any memory of the fact (saying 2011 was a frenetic year for me is putting it mildly). My Real Children appealed to me in part because it offered a protagonist unlike those I’d seen in recent fiction, and also because it seems to be picking up on a theme from several other “light SF” books I’ve read and enjoyed.

Like Atkinson‘s Life After Life (reviewed here), My Real Children falls into a category I could shorthand as “alternate-history biography.” Like Niffenegger‘s Time Traveler’s Wife, it’s told by two different narrators whose stories don’t perfectly overlap. Where Walton’s book diverges from these others is that 1) its protagonists only get one life apiece, without redos; and 2) its two narrators are technically the same person.

At the beginning of the book, we’re introduced to Patricia Cowan, an elderly woman with dementia. Patricia knows that she’s confused and forgetful. She also knows that when she does remember things, they seem to be coming from two different lives. In one life, “Tricia” has four children with a husband she doesn’t love, gets divorced, becomes political and never leaves England; in the other, “Pat” has three children with a wife she loves dearly, spends half her year in Italy and is a successful guidebook writer. Oh, and by the way, in the first life President Kennedy was never assassinated and gay marriage was legalized in Britain in the ’80s; in the second one, the United States and Russia had a nuclear exchange in the mid-1960s that led to massive cancer outbreaks and other terrible things in the ’80s and ’90s.

I basically read this book in a day: I took it with me on vacation and couldn’t put it down. Although both of Patricia’s lives have sad and traumatic parts, there are also many parts in both sections of the book (Pat and Tricia alternate chapters, usually encompassing roughly the same period in time) that are really enjoyable to read. Pat’s life with her wife Bee, in particular, seems tailor-made to appeal to artistic types like your humble reviewer. The descriptions of everyday life are beautiful and the prose is well-crafted. The characters did seem a little one-dimensional in places, probably a necessary shortcut coming from the compression of time. Pat’s wife Bee in particular seems too perfect; even when bad things happen to them, the only portions of their life that appear on the page are the ones that end up with everyone happy at the end (on the other hand, Tricia’s husband, Mark, is almost too ugly). All that said, I enjoyed every page of this book: it also didn’t feel much like genre fiction to me.

I’d agree with the Locus reviewer, Gary K. Wolfe, who had this to say about the alternate history part of Walton’s book:

Walton… has to present two alternative versions of a history that stretches over nearly 60 years in 34 relatively short chapters. As a result, we’re in for some fairly quick historical summaries interspersed with individual dramatic scenes that focus on Trish and Pat and their various relationships, professional lives, children, and grandchildren. It’s rare for me to think that any novel might have been a bit longer, but Walton’s two worlds are so tantalizingly familiar yet estranged that I sometimes felt I needed a little more context for the various radical historical changes that occur mostly in the background or crammed into chapter-opening paragraphs.

The world where Pat lives with Bee is obviously troubled, with nuclear fallout causing the cancer deaths of several beloved characters and Britain clamping down on the rights of same-sex couples in a way that (I gather) is much harsher than what GLBT families would experience in real-life Europe today. On the other hand, the world where Tricia/Trish lives feels more like ours — while reading, I would periodically forget that it wasn’t — except that oh, yeah, there’s a colony on the moon where Tricia’s youngest son goes to work for the better part of two years. The alternate-history backdrop is there, but it definitely takes a back seat to the emotional story of the characters. And while I didn’t miss the historical backdrop while I was reading, when I stepped back and looked at the larger point it felt like Walton was trying to make with the book, I realized that the focus on the personal might have weakened the overall plot arc.

As the quote at the top of this review suggests, the big-picture question of the book is whether one seemingly-unremarkable person can make a difference in the fate of the world. For instance, we’re supposed to speculate on whether the fact that Tricia’s comparatively peaceful world comes from the fact that Patricia married her college sweetheart and became a peace activist as an escape from her unhappy marriage, as opposed to living a happy and apolitical life with Bee where they wonder, idly, if they should have gotten involved with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament when they were younger. At the end of the book, Patricia wonders not about which was the real life, but which was the better one; whether personal happiness in a broken world is better than unhappiness in a more peaceful world, or vice versa. The answer’s purposely left up to the readers to decide, but if it’s supposed to be what the story’s about I felt like the contexts needed to be more foregrounded.

Part of this might come from my limitations as an American reader; although I obviously know that there’s no settlement on the moon, my familiarity with LGBT politics in the UK isn’t good enough to allow me to parse that aspect’s differences from reality when I was reading in the Internet-free island of my hotel room. I also find that this is a hazard of alternate history as a broader genre, that unless you’re very familiar with the eras the authors are changing, a lot of it tends to go over your head. Even if you miss some of the nuance of the alternate history, though, I’d say this story is strong enough to stand on its own anyhow.

This book’s prompted me to seek out Among Others again. If you like your genre fiction heavy on personal narrative and comparatively light on genre, I’d recommend giving Walton’s My Real Children a read.

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  1. Jo Walton’s My Real Children Review Round-Up | Chaos Horizon
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