Friday, February 4, 2011

Among Others, by Jo Walton

There is apparently a controversy about the magic in this book, and whether it's real, or a manifestation of PTSD or mental illness or both on the part of the narrator, Mori Phelps. I'm not the least bit surprised by that, given the blurb on the front cover by Robin Hobb, which includes the comment "...if you remember the magic you used to do...," and when I got the hardcover (having started the book in Kindle, and then abruptly lent it to someone else because I knew I could just get a dead-tree copy, and that I wanted one), I was deeply suspicious. At the time, I wasn't very far into the book. To talk about magic as something you used to do when you were a teenager sounded to me like an invitation to read the book as nostalgia for the way things used to be, rather than as a serious story.

I'm not saying that's Hobb's intention, mind you. It's just what it seemed like at the time.

Onto the book: I think it's strong and splendid, and one of those books which might cause people to say, "oh, anyone could do that; it doesn't take any effort as long as you love books," because Walton makes it look natural and effortless.

It's a bit difficult to talk about how the book works and what makes it good without dropping into spoilers, though I can do so a little more effectively if I talk about it in relation to my own life -- though then I worry that I'll sound self-centered, and worse, boringly so. Among Others is being marketed as a book that feels uncanny if you happened to be a teenager reading sci-fi/fantasy in the late 70s and 80s. (I wasn't). Mori Phelps is a character who makes people think that Jo Walton is their "secret best friend." I didn't feel that, especially because I didn't know that Heinlein and Zelazny and Tiptree existed back when I was 14, and reading Piers Anthony* and David Eddings, and Robert Lynn Asprin, and Douglas Adams.

What I did though, when I was 9 or 10, or 11 at most, and discovered Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane via the BBC adaptations, was to adopt them as parents. Mine loved me, quite clearly, but equally clearly, they couldn't be the parents I needed. That's heartless, I know, but it's also true, in that it was becoming clear that we had incompatible views of morality and politics, and that it was going to get worse, rather than better. And their constant arguments were dangerous. At the time, I couldn't have articulated why in terms of self-esteem, independence vs. co-dependence, and personal boundaries -- but it was around when I was 10 that I really began to understand that they were dangerous. Not evil, but dangerous. It is a very hard lesson to learn; I wish no children had to learn it.

In response, I adopted Lord Peter and Harriet. And I wished, over and over again, rather like Holly and Ivy in the Rumer Godden novel, because that was what I had for reference, that I could grow up to be as strong and intelligent as Harriet Vane. (I didn't necessarily think that meant academia or even writing and literature). I went so far as to bargain with the powers that be, to say that I would accept an ordeal like that which Harriet went through, if it meant that I could develop the ability to think and imagine and be strong in that way. I may have had vague thoughts about an equivalent Lord Peter, but they were just that: vague thoughts -- because though I admired him terribly, he wasn't the point, nor did I think that wish was a good one to try to make.

What Among Others does is provide a context that allows me to think through what I was doing when I made that adoption, and that bargain, and everything that arose from it later. The satisfaction that I get from it, then, is very personal; because it reveals to me that something I hardly thought could be a story's central focus can be one. I do think that that's a mark of lovely work; to take something that seems, for whatever reason, difficult to capture at all, and show that this insubstantial or deeply buried quality can be a story in itself. If you go down to Felpham and Bognor Regis on an overcast day and look at the sea, you can see strange lights shining out of it -- and I've seen paintings that capture those lights brilliantly. This book is rather like the first painter who saw those lights and knew that they could be the subject of a painting, and set out to do so, and succeeded.

Walton writes about families as brilliantly as she writes about magic, so it's not really any surprise that the charged energy between family members features as heavily as any energy from spells. Thinking about this, I realize that one of the things I like best of all is her method of portraying the inevitable convergence of the two: impossible that the charges of magic wouldn't end up involved in family; and even more impossible that family dynamics wouldn't effect the way that one practiced magic, and how its effects manifested. Moreover, someone who was influenced by magic (whether by practicing or being practiced upon) would think about everything differently. There's a passage I really like at around p. 64, which, oddly enough, lines up perfectly with one of the critical essays I was reading last week, though I won't say whose, or tell you any more than that. I will admit that I like books when they manage to think through complex ideas in quick, trenchant asides, without being unnaturally didactic, and if you like that, then you'll probably enjoy this one.

I realize that this is getting a bit long. Though I suppose if you read this long, then you thought it was worth it, so. Plotwise, it's an odd book and meandering book, whose style I'd described as overlapping episodic if I had to give it a name. If you've read other Walton, especially books like The Prize in the Game, (which, I know, people who have known me in other blogs are sick of me harping on, but in many ways, it feels like my Lord of the Rings, I'm that fond of it) -- then the style of action is a lot like that. I wonder how people are struck by a confrontation that happens late in the book; because I found it entirely convincing, and beautifully written, but it parallels confrontations that I've had myself, so I don't feel the least bit capable of evaluating how it will hit other people. ETA: looking around, it seems that a lot of people find it rushed/tacked on. I didn't -- but how to explain the electricity in such a meeting to people who've escaped having it, and how that electricity builds for weeks or months in advance? I despair, for the moment.

I hope there will be a sequel, though I can understand the challenge of undertaking such a thing. Actually, no I can't. I've never written a sequel, after all. But I think that one of the compliments that I can give Among Others is that it's entirely possible to think about a sequel and want one badly, and what might happen in it, and just as possible to think that the characters' lives went on, and that the events of the sequel are occasionally barely visible. I don't do magic anymore**, except by accident when reality goes a bit transparent and I can see that someone is about to phone, or that I'm about to lose my wallet, but I think I can sort of see Mori Phelps occasionally. Not in an exactly intelligible form about which I could say, "oh, this will happen in the sequel," but see all the same, much as she can see fairies. This is an unusual thing to say about a book, and a really odd way to end a review, but I appreciated the effect to no end, and think it a remarkable thing to pull off.

* I fully agree with the brief aside comparing Anthony to one of the literary greats; also, though I have problems with much of Anthony these days, Dragon on a Pedestal is somehow good every time I read it, and some day, I will get round to explaining why that is. If I figure it out myself.

** Actually, no, that isn't true. A lot of my research, and what I've found, is really only explainable if I acknowledge that it's the hybrid of critical thinking and divination. But that's a different sort of magic, not dealt with in this story.


  1. I'm about halfway through it and am just loving it so far. The book does feel uncanny to me in kind of the way you refer to, because the narrator and I are close to the same age, and I was similarly bookish (though I didn't read that much SF). When You Reach Me had a similar effect on me, but this even more so because of the even-more-bookishness and the social isolation and the diary format (and it helps even more that I'd just been poking around my journals from the same age-- it feels almost like I pulled out someone else's journal from under my desk by accident, which effect I know is the product of a lot of hard work and artifice, but it's brilliantly done).

    It hadn't occurred to me until I read this post that the magic might not be "real" within the book--but I've just gotten to the Christmas part and it might have occurred to me to wonder right about now. I don't think it's so, though; I think it is real & not PTSD or delusion, however much it might echo the effects if someone were to have such.

  2. I'm so glad you're enjoying it! And I totally get how it would feel uncanny, especially if one had kept a diary (I didn't).

    I have to say, I totally didn't see the Christmas part coming. Not at all.

    I won't go into detail about the rest of the book, but a week or two ago I was muttering on FB about characters who didn't have magic being the main characters in stories about magical worlds -- as I recall, you had suggestions for things for me to look at -- and that was inspired by this book. And it does still make me want to write a story to capture what I was getting at. I haven't figured out how that would work yet, though. Not enough to be really articulate about it.

  3. Oh geez, I just finished it and there are so many eerie parallels with my own life that it was a moderately creepy experience. I lived in England at age 16, when my dad took a year's sabbatical there. I didn't go to boarding school, but still so much of the school environs were deeply familiar. The school library was Highworth's school library in my mind's eye (yes, I went to the Highworth School for Girls -- a comical Dickensian name if ever there was one). I used to mope around the grounds on my own. I took chemistry (and had to fight for it, a little, because I was in 6th form and could take 4 classes, max). I had a friend like Gill (who never made a pass at me, and loved classics, not science, but I couldn't help hearing Erika's voice anytime Gill spoke). The village in the book might have been Wye -- I knew the tea shop, I knew the library, there wasn't a book store, though. I haven't read everything she mentions, though I've read quite a bit, and the Mary Renault books and The Magus are things I specifically remember reading for the first time in England.

    And Cat's Cradle was, for a very long time, my favourite book in the entire world.

    I am so, so pleased that something this intimately character-focused and small on plot can still get published. It both soothes my cynicism and aggravates it. I am a little bit envious, I admit.

  4. Highworth School...oh, gods, yes, Dickens is laughing wherever he is. How funny. I'm envious of you, and Mori, I think, in some ways, because I wanted to get away sooner than I did.

    I think it's striking a lot of people that way, thus all the buzz. And it does seem amazing to me that such an intimately character-focused book could still be published; but even more amazing is how well it's being received. A couple of posts back, the genre vs. litfic post, was started by someone in the Guardian writing that Among Others could be a competitor for the Booker -- it can't of course, since no UK publisher has been willing to chance the thing -- but still, it's getting that notice.

    I am really pleased you enjoyed it.

  5. I wonder why she can't get published in England. It seems to be a subject of longstanding frustration for her. (understandably!) I mean, her books are so intensely British. What's their problem??

  6. I've wondered if it's the fact that she's Welsh, and writing about England. That appears to be a still-problematic issue, or so I've noticed in casual conversation when on the other side of the pond. But I'm not certain in the least.