Review of Among Others by Jo Walton
by Jo Walton
I read this book on a plane over the Atlantic as I travelled to England for job interviews. It even tickled me to see the place where I would be staying (Bury St Edmunds) mentioned in passing. Jo Walton’s familiarity with England, Wales, and presumably girls’ boarding schools all comes through clearly in these diary pages. As Morwenna unspools the story of her recovery after the accident that claimed her twin sister’s life, we learn about her and her struggle to reconcile the real and the fantastic. Among Others is a diary of loss, gain, and self-exploration—that is, pretty much what all teenagers go through, albeit usually without fairies.
The defining moment of the book actually takes place before the story begins. Morwenna and her sister, Morganna, are involved in a magical ritual gone wrong, and Morwenna survives while her sister does not. According to Morwenna (or Mori, as she calls herself), the fairies were trying to help them stop her mother from committing some unspeakably evil act. Mori has now escaped her mother’s clutches, at least temporarily, and been remanded to the custody of her estranged father, whose sisters promptly pack her off to a boarding school.
We know Morwenna only through her diary, meeting her first as she goes off to boarding school and getting to know her as she adjusts to this new life. The term unreliable narrator is apt here: there is no reason that anything Mori provides us is accurate or true. Indeed, there is plenty of room for interpreting her discussions of magic and fairies as post-traumatic delusions. In this world, magic is so subtle that it is almost impossible to know if one is actually succeeding in using it. This might seem convenient, but it provides the source for real ethical quandaries as Mori experiments with using magic for her own ends.
We learn almost immediately that Mori is a bibliophile of the first order. Not only does she love books; she devours them with a speed approaching the supernatural. Though she reads widely, she has a fixation with science fiction and fantasy as only a teenager can have: that wide-eyed fascination with the idea that there are so many possibilities and conceptions of the future and the past. One of the most appealing things about Among Others to me, and I imagine to many other readers, is the extent to which we can identify with Mori the SF reader. We see in her our own introverted tendencies as teenagers. I had friends as a teenager, but I spent most of my time with books, building up relationships with authors through their works. I still do.
The name-dropping of SF and fantasy authors turns Among Others into a feast of intertextuality. These authors and their works form a kind of background for the rest of the story. I’m sure that Walton was very deliberate in choosing whom she mentioned and where she mentioned them, so people familiar with these authors might recognize resonances in this book. As it is, I particularly enjoyed Mori’s references to Le Guin (whom I adore) and Delany (whose Triton I read relatively recently). I love her reflections on these works and how they prompted her to ask questions of her own views on things like gender and sexuality:
But on the other hand, I do have sexual feelings. And Triton, and Heinlein, and The Charioteer have made me think that actually sex itself is neutral, and it’s society demonizing it that makes it icky. And the whole sex-change thing in Triton, there must be a sort of spectrum of sexuality, with most people somewhere in the middle, drawn to men and women, and some off on the ends—me at one end and Ralph and Laurie at the other. One of the things I’ve always liked about science fiction is the way it makes you think about things, and look at things from angles you’d never have thought about before.
From now on, I’m going to be positive about sex.
Can you imagine generations of girls and boys growing up and tackling the thorny issues like sex and gender with the help of thought-provoking SF instead of magazine ads and TV commercials telling them they don’t look good enough? What a world that would be.
Mori’s move to a boarding school is something in the way of a fresh start, a clean break with aspects of her past life. Having been “rescued” from her mother and briefly reunited with her father, she enjoys a period of somewhat unsupervised independence. Owing to her academic prowess and self-sufficient nature, she goes off on her own to explore. She finds a library: that eternal refuge and endless resource, a sanctuary where you’re not only allowed but encouraged to walk away with books for free! She joins a book club for science fiction and fantasy, makes friends, even finds a boyfriend. Gradually, she begins to recover from the events in the past that broke open her body and mind.
As all this happens, however, there are the more subtle, perhaps magical events moving in parallel. Mori receives letters from her mother, including photographs with Mori burnt away. She wonders if her aunts are also witches, if they are trying to control her and restrain her budding power. She does a spell looking for companionship, then has to live with the fear that whatever she did made the book club happen, that these people’s lives and memories were different before she interfered. And every time Mori returns home, she gets a feeling that her sister is still there, lurking between life and death, waiting for some kind of resolution.
I loved the writing in Among Others. I liked getting to know Mori; Walton gives her a great voice, showing her stumble and critique herself and then try to change and become better. I wish I could love the ending just as much, but as far as the story goes, Among Others is somewhat lacking. In retrospect, that last visit to the Valleys clearly sets us up for the climax and Mori’s final confrontation with her departed sister. But when I was first reading, I remember turning the last page only to find myself confronted with a “books by the author” page. (I was reading this on my tablet, so I didn’t really have a sense of how close I was to the end.) That’s it? No closure, no wrap-up afterwards? What did it all mean?
I suppose that Walton considers us mature enough to draw our own conclusions and pad out the post-story as we see fit. But I’m still left wanting more, wanting more specifics that the subtlety of magic use in this book doesn’t seem to provide. The close relationship between Mori and her sister underpins much of the book, but what exactly happened between them? What was her mother really up to?
There are plenty of things that make Among Others a good book, not of the least of which are the main character and how many SF fans will find themselves identifying with her. Still, I’m not sure I would call it a complete book, because it leaves me wanting. In the end I find myself conflicted: I loved the character but was never really captivated by her story.