REVIEW: Is it magic? Is it not?
Reviewed by Mahvesh Murad
ONLY seven novels have ever been nominated for thre grand slam of genre prizes — the Nebula, the Hugo and the World Fantasy Award. It is a rare feat indeed, and the most recent book to receive this
accolade is Jo Walton’s quiet, smart little novel Among Others, which has won both the 2011 Nebula and the 2012 Hugo. While these awards make the book attractive to readers and fans of science fiction and fantasy, they may well cause people who are averse to these genres to turn away. More’s the pity then, because Among Others is barely a straight-up science fiction or fantasy novel. What it is, in fact, is a bildungsroman — the story of young Morwenna, who like so many teenagers, struggles to find her place in the world surrounded by those she cannot connect with: “They are not my people,” she repeats. “They are not my people.”
Among Others is set in 1979 and is the diary of a 15-year-old girl from a small Welsh industrial town (it even starts with an exclamation from the writer of the diary: “Very Private. This is NOT a vocab book!”). When we meet Morwenna, she has recently moved out of a state-run home for children to find her father, whom she has not seen since she was a toddler. He has since then been employed to manage a large estate for his “three bossy half-sisters” who — like the three Fates — immediately decide Morwenna’s future and pack her off to an English boarding school. Morwenna is entirely out of place in this new world of English traditions, systems and teen girls more interested in their mothers’ furs than in academics.
Not just is Morwenna from an entirely different social background, she has also been disabled in a car accident that killed her twin sister, and her limp, special shoes and cane mark her out from the crowd physically. She’s certain she doesn’t belong either at school or with her father’s family: “They really can’t wait to get rid of me, with my ugly Welsh accent and my limp and, worst of all, my inconvenient existence.”
So what happened to Morwenna’s twin? What was the accident that killed her and left behind this half-fey child, this prickly teenager who must try so hard to “ignore the pain, and ignore the huge hole where [her twin] Mor ought to be”? For the most part what is known is that the accident took place while the twins were attempting to stave off a particularly dangerous spell cast by their half-mad mother who “spins dark magic for ill”. Just how unwell or abusive Morwenna’s mother is is largely unseen in the book — it is clear however that the twins believed their mother to be an insane witch who used a sort of natural, pantheistic magic to control her world: something Morwenna delves into eventually and is ultimately afraid of.
Whether Morwenna’s mother actually is a witch, whether Morwenna herself is able to cast spells or see fairies in the woods, is entirely up for debate. It would be very easy to believe all the magic in Among Others to be simply the result of a lonely teenager’s overactive imagination. In fact, Morwenna’s mother seems to be less witch and more mentally unstable, irresponsible single parent. Her ‘evil’ is implicit, her abusive actions are never clearly stated and she generally seems to be no worse than the mother of any hormonally charged teenage girl. Even her letters, confesses Morwenna, are “barbed, but with barbs that wouldn’t really show if I showed [them] to someone else”. Is it magic that drives her mother, or just a mental illness? Those afraid of reading fantasy fiction can rest assured that they will not have to suspend their disbelief very much or for very long — the narrative is understated, calm and strong. There are no fairies that communicate with humans, there is no chanting or waving of wands, there are no magic practices that Morwenna is certain of, and the effects (if any) of her ‘spells’ are quiet and coincidental: “I wish magic was more dramatic,” she says and in fact, much of the fantasy element in the novel is so matter-of-fact that it could be read away the way Morwenna’s mother’s magic can be.
Morwenna’s salvation lies in reading. Books are her anchor — quite literally too, with her bag full of books constantly slung on her shoulder. It is the one item she never lets go of, as if perhaps her meta- as well as physical balance both depend on the weight of books in her bag. “I have books, new books and I can bear anything as long as there are books.”
Among Others is a love letter to great science fiction — whether from the Golden Age or the New Age, Morwenna’s love for science fiction and fantasy literature is abundant, overflowing the pages of Walton’s book. This precocious teenager’s take on the canon of science fiction and fantasy is captivating, even for those who may not be as interested in these books as Morwenna is. The work of writers like Tiptree, Zelazny, Heinlein, Dick, Delany, Le Guin, Silverberg and Asimov appears in Among Others, along with that of Kurt Vonnegut and even Dodie Smith.
The charm (and indeed, strangeness) of the book lies in the faith a reader is willing to have in Morwenna’s perception of her life. She seems almost too good to be true — she’s smart and practical — whether its gender, sexuality or even her drunken father’s clumsy, rather disturbing sudden affections. Everything about her points to an entirely stable, reliable narrator, yet one who talks of magic, spells and fairies just as easily as she talks of the books she has borrowed from the library. It is an entirely strange situation — knowing Walton’s oeuvre (which includes Tooth and Claw, a dragon novel written as a sort of Victorian romance), it is unlikely that she meant for the fantasy element in the book to be implicit, yet here is Morwenna saying, “think of this as a memoir. Think of it as one of those memoirs that’s later discredited to everyone’s horror because the writer lied”. But even when magic is on the surface, it is a gentle glistening web encompassing the narrative and never weighing it down.
By Jo Walton
Tor Publishing, US