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Jul 31

Book Review: My Real Children by Jo Walton

What’s It About

[The back cover blurb is long so I’m just cutting and pasting the last paragraph]

Two lives, two worlds, two versions of modern history. Each with their loves and losses, their sorrows and triumphs. My Real Children is the tale of both of Patricia Cowan’s lives…and of how every life means the entire world.

Representative Paragraph

Two realities co-existing

[Patricia] had made choices. Thinking about that she felt the strange doubling, the contradictory memories, as if she had two histories that both led her to this point, this nursing home. She was confused, there was no question about that. She had lived a long life. They asked her how old she was and she said she was nearly ninety, because she couldn’t remember whether she was eighty-eight or eighty-nine, and she couldn’t remember if it was 2014 or 2015 either. She kept finding out and it kept slipping away. She was born in 1926, the year of the General Strike; she held on to that. That wasn’t doubled. Her memories of childhood were solitary and fixed, clear and single as slides thrown on a screen. It must have happened later, whatever it was that caused it. At Oxford? After? There were no slides any more. Her grandchildren showed her photographs on their phones. They lived in a different world from the world where she had grown up.

Should I Read It?

 No.

Commentary

I know.  I’m as surprised as you are to find myself recommending that you not bother with a Jo Walton novel.  After reading Among Others and enjoying Walton’s fantastic criticism (especially her look back at the Hugo awards on tor.com) she’s become a writer who engenders a level of expectation and excitement.

I had no issue with the novel’s premise.  It’s an oldie but a goodie.  Take a pivotal moment in a person’s life and explore what might have been if they’d made a different decision.  In the case of Patricia Cowan that turning point is the day her boyfriend, Mark, asks her over the phone (not very romantic) for her hand in marriage.  Her response splits her life in two and from that point onward the novel alternates between the Patricia that said yes and the Patricia (or Pat) that said no.

However, as the lives of Patricia and Pat grew wider apart I found myself growing increasingly annoyed.  I appreciate that Walton wanted Patricia to experience two very different lives based on the answer she gave Mark.  My issue is that the path we see both Patricia’s take is so lacking in subtlety or nuance that the wonderful premise and set-up is totally undermined.

In the reality where Patricia said yes to Mark’s proposal, she lives a life of misery as he sets about emotionally abusing her, and putting down any dreams she might of have of being an academic or writer.  Sex for the two of them is a mechanical, loveless, awful process:

He turned back and lay on top of her again, battering away between her legs again, clearly trying to force a way inside. She tried to keep completely still to help. At last he managed it—she bit her lip to stop herself whimpering, but it was no good, as the battering went on and on she could not stop herself crying or later from begging him to stop. There was no dignity left to her. This couldn’t be it, the thing all the poetry was about, this painful bestial thrusting? At last he climbed off her and got out of bed, leaving her to cry alone in the dark.

Because this is fiction, and not the real world where conception is a crapshoot, Patricia falls pregnant immediately, and miscarries, only to have to go through the same harrowing process again.  In the end she and Mark have four children and aside from their youngest daughter, he is as aloof and emotionally detached from them as he is with his wife.  Patricia does eventually leave Mark, and things do get somewhat better, but the scars of their relationship linger.

While Patricia is going through this living hell, at a the global level things are moving along quite nicely.  Around Patricia’s awful marriage a science fictional utopia emerges, where people are accepted for who they are (gay marriage is legalised without too much fuss) and humanity travels to the moon and sets up a base, the eventual destination for one of her children.

As for the Patricia who said no to Mark, it becomes clear pretty quickly that Walton’s intention is to flip things around on a micro and macro level.  Pat meets Bee and enjoys a wonderful relationship of love and support.  However, at the global level the shit hits the fan as Russia and America end up nuking each other and a cloud of radioactive matter drifts across the world with cancer rates skyrocketing.  While it never reaches the height of a dystopia, it’s the sort of future history where you be constantly looking over your shoulder ready for the next nuke to fall on your head.

And that, frankly, is the be all and end all of this novel.   A good relationship taking place in terrible international circumstances and a horrible marriage taking place in a world where everything comes up Milhouse.  It’s about as nuanced as an episode of Dora the Explorer.

The shame of it is that I thought Walton’s handling of a same-sex relationship was wonderful.  She highlights the issues that gay couples face on a daily basis, issues that heterosexuals never need consider.  Most harrowing is not being allowed to visit your partner outside of hours at a hospital because you’re not recognised as a family member or a significant other.  And yet in spite of this, and in spite of a world where dropping a nuclear bomb on your enemy is de rigueur, Pat is still thankful that she met her lovely Bee.

[Pat:] “I am bringing you my joy, Jesus, as I was taught as a child. Thank you for Bee. Thank you for making her, thank you for letting me find her, thank you for making me worthy of her. Thank you for our house in Florence, for her fellowship, for my teaching. Thank you for our lives, our love. And if this is all there is, if she decides she wants a man later, wants to marry and have children, then so be it. Thank you for giving us this time to be together and be happy.”

Sadly, the goodness of Pat and Bee’s relationship is somewhat undercut by the revelation that Patricia’s husband, Mark, is a gay man who, due to his religious observance, never came to terms with his sexuality.  Because the story is told from Patricia’s perspective, Mark’s confusion in regard to his sexual tendencies is never explored.  Instead we’re given an awful stereotype of the closeted gay man who is an abusive arsehole with zero redemptive qualities.

The final chapter makes a clunky attempt to flesh out the main theme of the novel. In her dotage and suffering from dementia, Patricia recalls a fractured life that blends together her experiences as Patricia and Pat. At the heart of this chapter is partly the question of why couldn’t Patricia have experienced the best of both worlds, the love of Bee coupled with Walton’s utopia? With that question comes the guilt, how could Patricia choose that perfect life knowing that her beautiful children (even if they were a result of an abusive marriage) would cease to exist. Who are my real children? It’s an interesting point for discussion but it’s explored far too late in the novel and requires the reader to see Patricia and her children as “real” as more than just a thought experiment. Because ultimately I couldn’t get passed the artifice of this novel. Once Patricia makes that pivotal decision, I couldn’t help but see Walton, in the background, forcing her characters down two specific paths. Like one of those on-rails games where your choices are limited and pre-defined. And it’s this lack of real choice, of the freedom to do something unexpected, even to the author, that made this novel such a disappointing reading experience.

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