Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ghosts and Fairies and Witches and Books: Jo Walton's Among Others

I think I've pretty much decided that the idea of dividing various books up into genres is essentially the work of marketers and not something that artists or writers should have to worry about. As one of my favorite and most world defining quotes puts it: "Humans like categories, nature likes a spectrum". That pretty much sums up my opinions on nearly everything. Taxonomy has taken over the world. Why does everything have to be one thing or another?

Which curmudgeonly paragraph brings me to Jo Walton. She's published by Tor, who publish SciFi and some fantasy. Walton's books include Tooth and Claw, a book about dragons that was greatly inspired by Trollope, and a trilogy of cozy mystery novels set in a alternative history dystopia. In other words, she's pretty much my sort of writer. Her most recent book, Among Others, is just as difficult to pin down. It's an autobiographical coming of age story. It's a boarding school book. It's about grief and loss. It's about fairies. It's about magic. It's about family. But more than anything else, it's about books. Books, books and more books.

The book is told through a series of journal entries (we are told they are written backwards, to keep people from reading them, something I used to occasionally do), written by Mor, fifteen. Her twin sister has recently died (either in a car crash or during a cataclysmic battle between good fairies and their evil witch mother or both - take your pick) and she's been sent to her father and his family who are essentially strangers to her. She misses her extended family and the Welsh valley in which she was raised. She's sent to boarding school, where she is bullied for her less than posh accent and for the cane she must walk with after the accident.

The narration is essentially unreliable and Walton's preamble just muddies the water further:
"So this is why you'll find there's no such place as the Welsh valleys, no coal under them, and no red busses 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."
And there are fairies, at least Mor can see them, or Mor writes that she sees them. I've seen one or two reviews of this book complaining about the magic. That they aren't able to tell what is real and what isn't. Does it matter? Or, possibly, that's the entire point. Walton has been awfully cagey in interviews (casting doubt on parts of her wikipedia bio, too), not giving much away, and good for her. It's funny, the parts that are about Mor going to school and dealing with her family (about whom we get a full but gloriously muddled history), and reading and making friends smack of complete documentary truth. They are immediate and detailed and interesting. The parts about magic and seeing fairies sometimes feel a little uncomfortable. But, the caginess feels intratextual. Mor worries people will think she's crazy or make fun of her more. She doesn't want something that means so much to her ridiculed. Or maybe she is making it up. But I don't think so. I think we should take Walton at her word: The fairies are real.

More about the books. Mor reads science fiction and fantasy with untrammeled abandon and concentration. She writes about what she reads constantly, and she longs for someone to talk about books with. This is a particular kind of loneliness that the existence of the internet has somewhat alleviated. No matter what you are a fan of, you can plug a few searches into google and likely find a few likeminded individuals. But back in the analog past it wasn't so easy. Mor slowly makes friends with her school librarian, finds a science fiction reading group at the local library, and the books are one of the few things she and her father have to talk about. Books are so important to lots of young people, more so to them than anybody. I remember so vividly the ache of it. She writes about reading Tolkien so eloquently and about the problem of Susan and about Heinlein and others. She picks up a copy of Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time and then four pages later apropos of nothing she says, "Who would have thought Richard the Third didn't actually kill the princes in the tower?", and I fear if you hadn't read Tey's book you wouldn't know what she was talking about.

But I haven't read much SciFi and I didn't miss alot I don't think (but I think I may have read more than I realize, particularly of the pre-80s books that Mor is reading). But Tolkien, I get. And lots more. It's a book about the lonliness of a particular sort of adolescence. An alienated book reading one, not the most original premise as so may of that sort of young person grow up to be authors, but they so rarely actually write about the books themselves and entwine it with the life stuff. Add that to the supernatural and there's something special afoot.

Among Others isn't perfect. It feels a bit unresolved and cagy to the very last. I have a feeling, upon reflection, this might be intentional. Mor is so smart and thinks about everything, maybe not giving feeling much of a chance. I think that might be because of the terrors inherent in feeling, maybe feeling is somehow akin to magic. There are tantalizing hints and bits of information about her mother's madness and about what happened, I mean with the devastation of Mor's sister's death. It almost feels unfinished, but I'm fairly certain Walton doesn't want us to know more. It's one of the strangest choices I've encountered in a book in this age of easy pleasures, I don't know whether it was very, very brave, or a complete failing of nerve. I actually don't know what to think. I really liked this book and so much of it made emotional sense to me with it's strange shying away from larger issues in favor of literature. The more I think about it, the more I think that may have been the point. Now all of you must read it so I have someone to talk about it with.

(This is my 300th post! Whee!)

1 comment:

Ian said...

Nice review. I have just finished reading the book (and immediately passed it to my daughter to whom, I think, it will speak directly). As I have just finished it -pretty much in one sitting- I am too close to it to have any considered views but your comment on ambiguity rings true.

By the end there is not much of which we can be certain and this is expertly played on throughout the story. We never do get to the truth of Wim and Ruthie for example. The one question which, oddly enough, still sits in my mind is, oddly enough, which sister is narrating and which sister died? After all Mori herself muses on the ability of identical twins to impersonate each other; and Mori is such an ambiguous contraction...!