February 13th, 2011

book and glasses

And now let us speak of good books...

I figured I was going to write a review, once I was done – but for some books writing a dispassionate and distanced review is quite, quite impossible.

As far as review-type things go, let me just say that “Among Others” by Jo Walton is a book about… well… growing up different. It touches on dysfunctional families, family dramas and tragedies, boarding school, friends and frenemies, and books, oh yes, books. Let me just say that those people who are truly Others would never really get this book at all, because there are far too many references to the books that have been loved and hated through the years – to the point that every so often there’s a phrase in there, pitch perfect and lifted verbatim from somewhere, and those of us who are of Jo Walton’s tribe, or her protagonist Mori’s, recognise them with a frisson of familiarity and the ghost of some quite other book rises up smiling from the pages of this one, to nod its approval at us for recognising their presence here. Let me just say that this is one of those books which, if you find a resonance with it, will take you up like quicksand and swallow you whole – and if you don’t, you will bounce off it like off a slab of concrete, grey and impenetrable.

This is not a perfect book. Even drowning in it like I did, I could pick at a few things that left little annoying traces in the fabric of the story. It sometimes feels shallow, even rushed, because Mori skates on the surface of the “magic” in the story. Her mother is portrayed as the mad bad witch, to the point that her schemes were what cost Mori her health and the life of her twin sister, but those schemes are never really explained – it’s a question of “bad things would have happened” if the twins hadn’t risen up to stop their mother – but there’s not enough detail for me, the reader, to know if the sacrifice was truly warranted. And the confrontation at the end – despite its Tolkien connotations – feels rushed, unfinished, dangling, unformed (IS there a real magic at work here? ARE there real trees? Or was it all illusion? What happens to Mori’s mother, left behind in the whirlpools and backwashes and eddies of magic? She’s been portrayed as rather more than she seems to be in this last scene, where my reaction to her, as a reader, is that she is rather… disappointing. As though she has failed to live up to the potential – and certainly the reputation – that Walton has been building up for her all along. And the business about the twins – and the lost twin’s fate among the fairies – feels as though it needs far more fleshing out than it got, in order for that last scene between the twins to have the weight it deserves and was obviously hung on it by the author. Sometimes it does feel like one of those surface-skimming flat stones that you toss across a calm pond and watch skipping over the water, touching it once… twice… three times… before sinking. That’s the effect here – that there’s story underneath this, lots of it, but we only get glimpses of it when the tossed stone occasionally touches the surface of the water and starts ripples spreading from that point of impact as it flies off along its trajectory through the air not touching the story at all again until it touches down on the water once more.

But how can you not love a book that’s sandwiched between two particular paragraphs that speak to at least THIS particular reader’s soul?

The first, from the ‘Thanks and Notes’ section:

“People tell you to write what you know, but I’ve found that writing what you know is much harder than making it up. It’s easier to research a historical period than your own life, and it’s much easier to deal with things that have a little less emotional weight and where you have a little more detachment. It’s terrible advice! So this is why you’ll find that there’s no such place as Welsh valleys, no coal under them, and no red buses running up and down them; there never was such a year as 1979, no such age as fifteen, and no such planet as Earth. The fairies are real, though.”

The second, from the very end of the book:

“And here I am, still alive, still in the world. It’s my intention to carry on being alive in the world until, well, until I die. [……] I’ll live, I’ll read, and have friends, a karass, people to talk to. I’ll grow and change and be myself. I’ll belong to libraries wherever I go. Maybe eventually I’ll belong to libraries on other planets. I’ll speak to fairies as I see them and do magic as it comes my way and prevents harm – I’m not going to forge anything.. But I won’t use it to cheat or to make my life unreal or go against the pattern. Things will happen that I can’t imagine. I’ll change and grow into a future that will be unimaginably different from the past. I’ll be alive. I’ll be me. I’ll be reading my book. I’ll never drown my books or break my staff. I’ll learn while I live. Eventually I’ll come to death, and die, and I’ll go on through death to new life, or heaven, or whatever unknowable thing is supposed to happen to people when they die. I’ll die and rot and return my cells to life, in the pattern, whatever planet I happen to be on at the time.

That’s what life is, and I intend to live it.”

This is turning out long, so under a couple of cuts to preserve bandwidth –

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This is one special book.

Pass it on.