Margot McGovern reviews My Real Children by Jo Walton.
I count myself lucky if I manage to read one truly great book a year. Not just a book I’ll lose sleep to finish; a book I find myself daydreaming about months after reading, that I gift to all my friends and that I return to again and again just to reread little snippets. They’re inevitably books that are vast in scope with narratives that sprawl over decades and they are all, without question, good stories well told. The Goldfinch, The Interestings and The Signature of All Things have been among these titles in recent years.
The year is only half done, but I feel reasonably confident in claiming Jo Walton’s My Real Children (2014) as my great book love of 2015. I’m new to Walton’s fiction and I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard her name until a few months ago when a friend recommended her Nebula, Hugo and British Fantasy Award winning novel, Among Others (2011). Probably should have been on to that one sooner. Walton’s fiction brims with subtle magic. She takes the world as is and gives it a half turn towards the fantastic and the speculative.
In My Real Children Patricia is, according to her medical chart, ‘very confused’. A long-sufferer of dementia, she’s passing her final days in a nursing home. But it isn’t only memory loss that has her muddled. The nursing home appears to morph around her. One day there’s an elevator, the next there’s not. Sometimes the toilet is to the right of her room, other times it’s on the left. And in her moments of clarity she remembers living two very different lives.
In 1948, two years out of Oxford and working as an English teacher at a remote boarding school in Cornwall, Patricia receives a phone call from her fiance, Mark. He hasn’t got the marks he needed to continue on to postgraduate studies and pursue an academic career as he had hoped. Instead, he’s been forced to accept a low-paying teaching position and if Patricia still wants to marry him, it’s now or never. In one life, Pat says ‘never’. In another, Tricia says ‘now’. It’s a choice that will change not only the course of Patricia’s life and the lives of those she draws close to, but a decision that sets in motion a butterfly effect that changes everything from the legalisation of gay marriage to who kills JFK and which superpower wins the space race.
For Pat, life is rewarding. She travels to Italy after breaking things off with Mark and falls in love with Florence. She continues working as a teacher in England but also begins writing a successful collection of Italian guidebooks. After several years alone, she falls sin love with a leading plant biologist, Bee, and a photographer friend agrees to be a surrogate father for their three children. Her life is full of love, friends, faith and prosperity. However, Pat’s world is one of political unrest. As a result of nuclear warfare, millions have been exposed to high levels of radiation resulting in widespread thyroid cancer. Terrorist attacks are frequent, there are missiles pointed from the moon and international travel becomes increasingly regulated. England remains conservative and day to day life is fraught with difficulty for homosexual couples, especially those with children.
For Tricia, married life fails her expectations from the beginning. Mark is distant and cruel. Resentful over his academic failure, he takes out his frustrations on Tricia, bullying and belittling her and denying her any independence. Their sex life a trial for both of them, and Pat suffers a number of miscarriages between giving birth to their four children. Tricia soon loses her faith in God and does what she can to build a better world for the next generation of women. However, on a global scale the world is a happier place than the one we inhabit. Space exploration sees global superpowers combine their resources. There are international space stations and missions to Mars, while back on earth the threat of nuclear war has brought about peace: ‘There had been very little terrorism. The world had become quietly socialist, quietly less racist, less homophobic.’ Gay marriage is legalised in the 1980s.
In both lives, Patricia’s children are her joy and a source of strength. Pat must fight hard against a conservative bureaucracy to keep her three, while Tricia’s four are, for a long time, all she has to cling to. They are all her real children, but what if she had to choose? Can she live in two worlds? At the end of her life she wonders:
Maybe God, or something, wanted her to choose between them, make one of them real.
She had made a choice already, one choice that counted among the myriad choices of her life. She had made it not knowing where it led. Could she make it again, knowing?
My Real Children is a heartbreaking story of parallel lives that asks that most overwhelming of questions: ‘What if…?’ With great imagination and a flair for dramatic irony, Walton pits fate against free will and the personal against the political to ultimately put Patricia’s choice back on the reader. How do we define a life well lived? Is our own happiness worth the happiness of others? If you had the chance to see how your choices would play out, would you want to know? My Real Children is the kind of book to read with a friend, then compare philosophical notes over a bottle of wine (or two).
But for all its big questions, My Real Children is a story rooted in the personal—in love and family—a reminder that we can find happiness in the company of others and that happiness is a great source of strength against all manner of adversities.
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