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 –
The thing that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up while reading this book was an increasing sense of the simple fact that the building blocks of the story that Jo Walton was telling were no more than a frame – to distract me from the fact that she was somehow, inexplicably, writing about me. About the 15-year-old me, in fact, about the girl that I was back in that year that didn’t exist on a planet that wasn’t there.
According to unimpeachable sources, I clamored to go to boarding school when the opportunity came up and it proved itself to be a perfect solution to the crisis that my secondary-school education had been placed in by the vagaries and the timing of my father’s contracts and the logistics of where and how my family had to be living in order to fulfill these contracts. I too, like Morwenna, had cut my teeth on the English boarding school stories as penned by Enid Blyton – the Mallory Towers of my childhood dreams. But as Morwenna says in the novel, “It’s depressing how much boarding school is just how Enid Blyton showed it, and all the ways it’s different are ways it’s worse.” (It’s possible this is why I initially curled my lip at the Harry Potter books. Boarding school – trust me on this – is NOTHING like Hogwarts. Nothing at all. Morwenna and I shared the kind of horrid boarding school cooking which left her with a horrified fascination at a dessert called Hawaiian Surprise (set custard with a glace cherry on top, between six people…) and me with a lasting and visceral recoil from any foodstuff coloured pink, because anything PINK tasted PINK and pink, if you don’t know this already, tastes terrible. Take it from someone who knows.)
No, my life did not revolve around practising magic, or being violently ripped from the other half of myself like Mori must have been from her twin; my family is not dysfunctional in quite the same way as Mori’s was. But the rest of it – the rest of it – dammit, Walton is inside my head, and Mori’s thoughts on books might as well be MY thoughts, from what she thinks of Zelazny to what she thinks of Heinlein and Herbert and Asimov and Delany and Le Guin, from what she thinks of Amber to what she thinks of Narnia and Perelandra and Dune and Earthsea, talking of characters from novels as though they were real people who walked real worlds (well, AREN’T they? And yet some folks out there would think Mori and I both mad for thinking that way…) Reading “Among Others” I was constantly catching my breath because I damn well RECOGNISED some thought or opinion of my own back when I was 15 years old and knew everything.
I recognise that boarding school, and (quite aside from its food) its politics – I had the exact same problems as Mori had, fighting the set-in-stone curriculum in order to have the subjects that I wanted to take for O Levels. I did well in every subject I took… except maths. In fact every time Morwenna Phelps Markova turned around to look at the world I found myself gazing out of her eyes. Maybe I never saw fairies – maybe I did, and have now forgotten or abjured them – I don’t mean that. I mean I share her thoughts, her attitudes, some of her circumstances even though Jo Walton has taken pains to make them different from my own. But she is, in some inscrutable way, ME – more so than any other character in any other novel EVER. It’s almost frightening.
It was instructive to realise just how completely Jo Walton HAD me, from that last paragraph she wrote in her ‘thanks and notes’ section – how much I completely and viscerally understood and accepted what she said, and how much I believed, even if I couldn’t put my finger on an occasion when I had ever actually seen one, that fairies were, ARE, real, and all about us.
This is why I can’t write a coherent review of this book – because it is somehow, on a fundamental level, about ME. And it’s nigh impossible to write a coherent review of one’s own life.
I can’t tell just how much of this instant recognition and identification I share with any other reader of the novel – and it is entirely possible that such identification with this protagonist is universal because many of my peers, the members of my ‘tribe’ out there, were all “outsiders”, and strangers Among Others. And we recognise ourselves, and our kind, in Morwenna. Most of us have never even thought about practising sympathetic magic but we would nevertheless give our eye teeth for a real karass of people who understand what the word “karass” means. Most of us would find it just as hard as Morwenna to believe that there are actually people out there like-minded enough to us to like us for what we are – because they are the same – and not because they felt compelled to do so because of a love-me spell that we had cast to bring them to us. Many of us who are bookish and different grow up alone, believing ourselves to be living in a bubble universe with a population of one and that we will never find another being who shares our burning passions. And yet, we do.
It’s the books – the books inside this book are the true magic for me, not the dabblings that Morwenna apparently indulges in, not the dark magic of her evil mother, not the sympathetic magic of her witch-aunts. The books. The words. The stories into which one can dive and then get lost in, much as I did with THIS book, the one that I am holding in my hand. In a way it’s breaking the fourth wall – because I’ve read most of the books that Morwenna is discovering. Not only is Jo Walton wrong when she said that there is no 1979 and no planet Earth, she is proving herself wrong with every mention of every book that I have ever read or loved (or hated). Morwenna has opinions on Zelazny that match my own; she has opinions on Tolkien that make me smile; she has opinions on Donaldson that make me want to sit up and cheer; she has opinions on McCaffrey, and Heinlein, and Robert Silverberg, and Larry Niven, and Piers Anthony; she has opinions on the Shannara books – all real books, all real people, and some of those authors… I have met… in real life.
Some of them I have moderated at panels on conventions. Morwenna would be slack-jawed with astonishment if she heard me say that. I kind of relish the certainty of that reaction.
The biggest, the realest, magic in this book… are those other books. It’s the magic of Word, and of Writing. It’s the magic of Book, the magic that I’ve been both a devotee and a practitioner of for lo, these many years – and I deeply and viscerally understand that power. That is what makes this book so utterly special to me. Jo Walton obviously worships at the same altar.
And that second paragraph.
Listen to the vows that it’s strewn with, so casually, so powerfully.
“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.”
“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 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.”
“That’s what life is, and I intend to live it.”
I suppose I had that same epiphany when I was Morwenna’s age, but I don’t think I ever expressed it so powerfully, so succinctly, so beautifully.
I would print out that last paragraph, and frame it, and literally stand on street corners or in the libraries of boarding schools across the world which are full of people who used to be me (and Morwenna) and hand it out to kindred souls which I can now recognise are starting out on the journey on whose rather more advanced leg I am myself on even as we speak. I would give these words out to every young person on the cusp of adulthood, trembling on the threshold, lifting their face to feel from which quarter the wind is blowing.
This is what life is, and I intend to live it.
Do I need to tell you this next thing? I tried to read this paragraph out loud to rdeck when I came to the end of the book, and I could not because my voice broke on it. I don’t even know what makes these words hold such power for me, but they do, they do – and all I can say is, I hope that whatever words I myself have written and loosed into this world somehow somewhere fall into the hands of somebody like Morwenna, and help her to the light.
I certainly hope that Jo Walton’s book does so, and takes its place in the serried ranks of the books that are discussed in it, in the context of another and bigger story, another life. How much more meta can you get than that…? But seriously – if you know a fifteen-year-old – or have EVER been one yourself – this is the kind of book that needs to find its way into their bookshelves, and shine there with the light of a tiny little star, not brilliant enough to blind with but bright enough to shed its light on to the next bit of path that opens up before a pair of young and hesitant feet, giving just enough illumination for the traveller to safely take the next step on their journey.
This is one special book.
Pass it on.