Review of My Real Children by Jo Walton

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This is the latest offering from one of my favourite fantasy authors – would I like it as much as her other work?

The day Mark called, Patricia Cowan’s world split in two.
The phone call.
His question.
Her answer.
A single word.
‘Yes.’
‘No.’
It is 2015 and Patricia Cowan is very old. ‘Confused today’ read the notes clipped to the end of her bed. Her childhood, her years at Oxford during the Second World War – those things are solid in her memory. Then that phone call and… her memory splits in two.

my real childrenThis book is different from anything else that Walton has written – but then books with a storyline like this aren’t exactly crowding the bookshelves. By a spooky coincidence, I’ve recently read and reviewed Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which is the nearest book to My Real Children that I’ve come across – although there are some important differences. Patricia’s life apparently divides at a particular point in her life, when a single event and two decisions cause two different futures to come to pass – so this is more Sliding Doors than Groundhog Day.

There is also a real sense of ambiguity about the whole business – Patricia is suffering from dementia and has been battling with it for some time. So… is this a complex illusion brought about by a damaged brain? At this point, the two alternate lives seem to collide – she gets muddled as to which nursing home she is living in and although she hasn’t yet mixed up the children, she knows it will only be a matter of time. The impact of her different lives doesn’t just affect her family – the world is quite a different place and I found this to be a fascinating consequence. Intriguingly, it wasn’t the life where she was fulfilled and happy that had the best outcome…

This isn’t a doorstop-sized tome, so of necessity – given the span of years that it covers – Walton has had to skim over quite a lot of important events in order to fit it all in. But I didn’t feel that I’d been short-changed in any way. Like Life After Life, there are some bleak, miserable periods and terrible events interspersed with shafts of happiness and examples of human goodness. Unlike Life After Life, the worst of the savagery isn’t always visited upon Patricia. Walton is excellent at summoning up the feel of an era and I was intrigued to note how nostalgia steadily drifts into alternate history, as political events increasingly diverge from our own timeline. Focused as I was on Patricia’s personal story, it took a while for the penny to drop – but when I went back and reread the sections, I was able to appreciate the subtlety Walton employs with occasional mentions of events, before the shock of the major crisis which changes the whole political backdrop forever…

Walton always writes with intelligence and coherence, giving this story an interesting twist at the end arising out of her misery when trapped in her miserable marriage, thus making a remarkable and memorable read even more so. I found it fascinating that Patricia’s greatest contribution was when she was most oppressed – a stark contrast to all those feel-good lifestyle coaching gurus, whose starting point is that in order to fulfil a destiny, we need to be personally fulfilled and happy. If you enjoyed Life After Life, track down My Real Children – it is every bit as engrossing, with a stronger more convincing ending. Walton just goes from strength to strength and this book establishes her as one of the foremost and most interesting writers of her generation in any genre.
10/10

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