Although there are genres I read notably less of than others, I’d never say never; often it takes just one well-written book to hit the spot and a whole world of new fiction opens up. This is one of those supremely exciting moments in reading, and one that it’s well worth taking a few risks for. In pursuit of just such an experience, I asked for a review copy of Among Others by Jo Walton. Fantasy and sci-fi are neglected areas in my reading world and I was hoping that this novel would open up a secret pathway (like I need more books to read, but still).
Morwenna Phelps has suffered a strange and unusual tragedy; she and her twin sister are visionary children, able to see fairies and to dabble in magic, but when they rise together to prevent their evil mother from taking over the world, Mori’s sister dies and Mori suffers an injury that permanently damages her leg. When the novel opens, Mori has moved to live with her father, a man she barely knows, and he packs her straight off to boarding school. Alone, isolated and still grieving for all she has lost, Mori takes refuge in the libraries of the school and the town, disappearing into her love of reading to compensate for everything that is wrong with her life.
The novel takes the form of Mori’s diary and pays great debt to verisimilitude; these are typical teenage maunderings, bemoaning the strict regime of the boarding school, recounting the hostility she must encounter as a new girl, describing in detail her explorations of her new environment. Most of all, the diary doubles as her reading journal, in which she jots down thoughts about her reading, praise and criticism and ideas that occur to her. By 100 pages in, I was wondering whether anything was going to happen at all. By 150, I’d more or less resigned myself to the glacial pace. What I knew of the crisis that had brought Mori to her current situation came entirely from the book jacket (and indeed we never really learn any more), and most irritatingly of all, the endless references to science fiction and fantasy novels were no more than that – oblique and perplexing references that would only make sense if you had read the novels yourself. I loved the idea of this book as a love song to libraries and to the healing power of reading, but found myself deeply frustrated by the refusal of the narrative to let me in on that process properly. If you don’t know your sci-fi, you are condemned to be an outsider to this story.
However, I have a theory that when books dare to slow us down, they make a far greater impact on our minds. Sure, the pleasure of zipping through a novel that is compulsively readable is a delightful one. But inevitably the experience fades very quickly afterwards, and the reader can be left wondering whether they can take any sort of souvenir of the experience with them. Among Others produces exactly that slowing effect, and since it is not at all unpleasant to read (despite those frustrating references), it starts to reveal intriguing depths. The most interesting part of the narrative is the understanding of magic that it offers. Mori’s story treads a fine line between its stated conviction in fairies and magic, and the possibility that these are nothing more than the products of an over-sensitive, maybe traumatised, mind. Magic is seen by Mori to be the power humans deploy, particularly in families, to bind other people to them. Her father lives with his three sisters, formidable women whom Mori believes to be using magic – combined with her father’s somewhat spineless nature – to sap his will and hold him hostage. She is intrigued, then, by a visit from her paternal grandfather, Sam, who behaves quite differently in their presence:
There’s a kind of magic about Sam, not real magic, but he’s very solidly himself. It would be hard for any magic to find somewhere to start doing anything to him. It was interesting to see him with the aunts; he’s impeccably polite to them but he treats them as if they’re not important, and they don’t know how to deal with that. He has no cracks for them to get into.
Magic as charisma slides into magic as low-level bullying, into magic as a perverse determination to exert excessive control. There’s an orienting truth to this insight that brings the fantastic world and the real one into productive alignment. Among Others belongs perhaps less to the genre of fantasy and sci-fi in my mind than to that other popular genre of rescue literature. Gradually, gradually, Mori’s situation improves, until the end of the novel finds her contemplating a braver, brighter future.
I have no idea why this book won so many awards – except perhaps given they were all fantasy awards, the readers concerned were able to spot all those references – but it is a very soothing novel, gentle, slow, wise and inward-looking. And a wonderful tribute to libraries and librarians everywhere.
(Many apologies for being so behind in responding to comments and commenting: I will catch up, but am in the middle of a tight turnaround on a longer article. But I’m also so behind in posting reviews that I felt I had to get started. Please do bear with me; I’ll catch up as soon as possible!)
Maybe I’ve been living in a bubble because I don’t recall having heard anything about this book. I wonder if your experience of not getting the sf/f references is akin to someone reading literary fiction with lots of references and not getting them? It sounds like an interesting book though if a reader has to rely on the back of the book blurb for the backstory that’s a problem. Good luck finishing up your article!
I’m glad to hear that it was in the end rewarding and it sounds different from the run of the mill fantasy novels, esp the most popular ones in the last decade.
You have much more staying power than most people – I’d have given up at page 15, let alone 150.
I’m reading Francis Spufford’s ‘The Child that Books Built’, so I know I wasn’t the only boy to spend years with his nose buried deep in fantasy literature – and one of my most abiding reads was of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books. They’ve been mentioned before on your blog, Google says – +1 from me.
This sounds interesting. The only fantasy and sf novels I’ve ever liked are the ones that use the fantastical as a way of saying something about our ordinary lives, where the story works in its own right but can also be read as a powerful metaphor. It sounds as if this may be one of these. I also love writing that slows things down. So this might be something I’d like to read (though like you I won’t get any of the references).
Speaking of writing that slows things down, I’ve just read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family and was bowled over by it – went right back to the beginning and started again. I’m hugely grateful for your account of his talk in Cambridge, which sent me off to read some reviews and discover that my favourite critics (eg James Wood, Stephen Mitchelmore) loved him.
I recently read this one as well, and I remember being truly sorry to find that I was done reading it on the morning after I had finished. Even a couple of weeks later, I found my mind wandering to snippets of someone’s story, unsure whether it was an actual person or a character, and then realized it was Mori’s. I loved the bookishness of it at the time and I liked the story well enough while reading, but afterwards I, too, was struck by just HOW involved I had become in its unfolding. Such a great feeling, when a book sneaks up on you like that!
I’ve looked at this one so many times wondering if it was one that I could slip into easily–the general bookishness certainly sounds very appealing. Like you, though, I am not well versed in sci-fi or fantasty lit and wonder if I migh be lost with those references. But I do like getting lost–generally speaking–in a good story. Will have to give it a try I think and see how it clicks with me. And slowing down in a stor is not such a bad thing at all at times!
>>If you don’t know your sci-fi, you are condemned to be an outsider to this story.
I made an indignant “eek” noise in response to this. I’ve hardly read any sci-fi — I don’t think I’d read a single one of the sci-fi books she mentioned — and I didn’t feel like an outsider to the book at all. What resonated with me was her intense need to keep finding more things to read. And also, I mean, I was really pleased that she read and talked about The Charioteer. The Charioteer is amazing and nobody has ever read it ever. Except me. And that makes me really sad.
It’s weird for me to have liked this book as much as I did. I ordinarily have no patience with books in which nothing much happens. But, I don’t know, I really liked it.
I loved this book deeply. I am about the same age as the author, and I’d read almost all the same books (and the couple I hadn’t read, I went out and found them and read them immediately).
At the end of May, I’m going to a SF convention where I get to meet Jo Walton, and I’m excited about that.
Also, she is a kind and generous person. She wrote a poem for me and put it in the comments to a blog post I wrote on March 15.
I’ve seen this around and have been meaning to get hold of a copy. The only Walton book I’ve read (this may be a tribute to libraries, but my local service doesn’t seem to know she exists) is her novel ‘Farthing’, which is the first of three detective type stories which are set in a world where the UK made a compromise deal with Hitler. I thought it was excellent and part of that was to do with the style. I must get a copy of this while it’s on my mind. Thanks for the push.
I loved this too. It has a special combination and the love of books and literature is so well captured.