Among Others

Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Before I start, I should confess that I am a truly dreadful reader because Jo Walton’s ninth novel is the first of her’s that I’ve read. This despite hearing so many exhortations to read Farthing over the past seven years. If you’re a fan of Walton, please deplore my ignorance; if you’ve not read Walton, hopefully this review will persuade you to join me.

Our protagonist is one Morwenna Phelps, also known as Mori. Mori’s sister died in tragic circumstances that were, Mori strongly suggests, a consequence of the twins working against their unhinged mother, a controlling personality and powerful witch to boot. Following her sister’s death Mori is sent over the Welsh border to live with her father, a man whom she has never really known, and his three sisters, a cooing, simple-minded coven of English women whose lives are possessed by nostalgia. Torn away from her sister and crippled by the same blow that killed her, divorced from her extended family and friends in Wales and deposited into a distressingly banal boarding school environment composed of tightly-policed team spirit and bullying, Mori takes solace where she always has: in books, primarily sf and fantasy.

Mori is one hell of a reader. With her bad leg excusing her from physical education and her partially self-imposed pariah status excusing her from much social interaction, Mori burns through a book or two most days and Among Others is replete with her opinions of what she reads.[1] Mori’s responses are refreshingly direct and typically untainted by the perspectives of others.

When writing a book review I ordinarily avoid all mention of the book elsewhere as a sensible way to avoid other interpretations and arguments penetrating my consciousness before my own ideas are fully-formed. Even if said ideas subsequently fall apart when exposed to the critical environment outside this metaphorical laboratory, you learn something from that experience. Among Others tempted me to break this tradition, because having finished reading Walton’s novel, I was confident that some of my assumptions about the book are going to turn out to be laughably inaccurate.

This is because Among Others is clearly a heavily autobiographical novel but it’s tricky to identify where fiction and fact blur. Walton is Welsh-born and a self-described voracious reader of genre fiction. How many of Mori’s opinions on books – these compose a good third of the book – mirror Walton’s own? Where is Walton playing with the juxtaposition of her book’s 1970s setting and what is common knowledge in 2013? Lines such as “I think in a way Tiptree was taking the easy option”, on the subject of Alice Sheldon’s male persona, or the rhetorical “Who wouldn’t want to be Paul Atreides?” are suggestive of playful if subtle fourth-wall-breaking allusion.

It’s not just books. Mori’s tale features her engagement with the ambiguous magic of faeries, her first sexual encounters and her efforts to understand why social conventions can be so odd. How much of herself did Walton invest into Mori? Did the author grow up with a controlling mother and an absent father? Was she torn from a close support network at a young age? Did she consort with the fae? Ultimately, I suppose this is less important than analysing why I care. It is in part a critical instinct kicking in – the desire to understand a work in the fullest context possible – and in part an extension of how invested I became in Mori’s character over the course of the novel. Mori is an introvert and capable of being quite rude when flustered but Among Others lays bare her excellent mind to an extent only a few other characters enjoy.

To foray into mechanical considerations, the novel is written in a diary style that shifts easily between what are obviously journal entries and narration/dialogue more closely resembling the traditional format of fiction; these transitions are so fluid that I didn’t notice the way Walton was handling them until I’d almost finished the book. Her prose is relaxed and subtly honed. At no point does it feel jarringly unlike the diary of a precocious teenage girl but nor does it contort itself around complex points or delve into territory beyond a teenage girl’s ken. If anything it’s a relatable if idealised snapshot of the socially awkward genre-reading teenager: a broad reader who can intellectually outmatch her peers and is familiar with big ideas but struggles to make social connections and engage with the incomprehensibly arbitrary rules of polite society. This is beautifully realised when Mori is discussing with another character his chequered past. Her reaction to his revelations is calm and considered; moments later, when he describes Heinlein as a fascist, her response is hot-blooded. When this is remarked upon Mori replies, “surely in a universal sense Robert A. Heinlein matters a lot more however you look at it.”

Mori is not drawn only to the comprehensible world of traditional sf. The faery magic of Among Others is of an older form than much modern fantasy: it escapes regulatory nomenclature and methodological understanding, revolving instead around nebulous and numinous ideas. The tale of the faeries and Mori’s mother and sister lends a sense of mystery and drama to Among Others, helping to sustain its pace and lend Mori’s real journey – growing into herself – a more pronounced narrative arc. It’s no mere metaphor, however, and interstitiates with most other aspects of Mori’s life.

Given that Mori spends so much of the novel alone, sharing her opinions with silent and private pages, there is some irony in how Among Others can be understood as part of a conversation. It’s a conversation about genre fiction, about a love of reading and a keen intelligence driven by a hunger for new ideas. It speaks deeply to an assumed commonality at the heart of a lifelong fan of sf and fantasy: of books that we are familiar with even if we have not read them; a generic history we are all at least passingly familiar with, and most of all that desire to read, to understand, to discuss and to look forward. It is a powerful and moving novel that weaves a tale of magic and experience around the literatures of speculation and it resonates beyond the turning of its final page.


 

[1]You can check out a neat visual presentation of all the book Mori mentions at:

http://pinterest.com/tinyampersand/the-books-of-among-others/

[This review was published in issue 273 of Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. This version of the review should be identical to the print version.]

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