My Real Children by Jo Walton is a multi-textured joy. This book was tremendously powerful. I was in quite literally tears at the end. They were tears of both sorrow and joy; I didn’t mid at all. The story totally captured my heart and I totally recommend it.
The book opens in a nursing home where we meet Patricia Cowan. Close to 90 and deemed “very confused” by the nursing home staff. Patricia herself is unsure if she is confused or if she really remembers what she thinks she does. She does tend to forget various small things like the current year but she remembers two distinct lives for herself. Two sets of memories. Two families and two very different world histories. The slow opening into Pat’s thoughts gives us something to think about. Is she really suffering from dementia or has this experience of two worlds essentially unhinged her–or both?
This is a story about choices and the effects they have. How a simple choice may alter not just the chooser but, perhaps, the whole world.
If she had made a choice — well, she knew she had. She could remember as clearly as she could remember anything. She had been in that little phone box in the corridor in The Pines and Mark had said that if she was going to marry him it would have to be now or never. And she had been startled and confused and had stood there in the smell of chalk and disinfectant and girls and hesitated, and made the decision that changed everything in her life.
As we are told Pat’s tale, the world is a singular place and the first part of her life is that of a woman in England born in 1926. She has to deal with all the problems that this implies and entails for a woman in that time.
By chapters 6 & 7, there are clear signs of the parallel tracks splitting the world between “now” and “never”. Never seems a much more attractive alternate. The alternating chapters tell us two poignant tales of the same powerful woman; Pat in one set of memories and Trish in the other.
As we go along we get glimpses of people we recognize from out own timelines and see how they fare for better or worse in the events as they unfold in Pat’s lives.
In addition to the main character driven plots, we also get a fantastic travel book. Walton does a fantastic job of capturing the feel of being in places like the Pantheon:
In the Pantheon Patty looked up at the circle of blue sky at the centre of the dome and saw three birds wheeling left to right across it. She knew that would have meant something to Agrippa and the Romans who had built this building. Augury. She did not know what it augured, but she felt it was something good. The clutter down below, the graves of modern kings and even the artist Raphael, seemed irrelevant to this purity of form, the grave splendour of the dome, the pillars, the circle through which the eye was drawn up to heaven, to God. She wept, and understood that she did not weep for herself.
The time spent in Florence is especially wonderfully done. Rich in detail and a showing us a clear love of the parts of the world we travel through along with Patty.
She sat alone in restaurants eating pasta and refusing wine. Men looked at her lecherously and occasionally tried to touch her, but Marjorie’s technique of appealing to old black clad ladies continued to work. She spent her days looking at art and architecture and eating gelato in a little place she had found near the church of Orsan Michele, Perche No! Gelato was not ice cream but pure essence of frozen fruit, with flavours she could not have imagined, watermelon, lemon, strawberry. She thought she would never eat ice cream again. She sat eating it and staring at Verocchio’s statue of Doubting Thomas poking at Christ’s wound in a niche outside the church. That was the Christian way to deal with doubt, open yourself up to being poked at. Not shut it in a cupboard, as her mother had done when her childish inquiries about religion crossed some invisible and unpredictable line.
Isn’t that lovely? I very much like the detail of appealing to old black clad ladies–I saw this in a current guide somewhere as advice for single women in Italy. I also quite agree on the subject of gelato.
In addition to being a wonderful book, I have a special reason for being even more happy to see this book come out. I was able to be a beta reader and so I first read this almost one year ago. This was fantastic fun for me. 2013 was a great year from my standpoint as a fan of SF. As this year goes on, I’ll be able to share a few more of these fun events.