No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, October 19, 2012

2012/48: Among Others -- Jo Walton

Tolkien understood about the things that happen after the end. Because this is after the end, this is all the Scouring of the Shire, this is figuring out how to live in the time that wasn’t supposed to happen after the glorious last stand. I saved the world, or I think I did, and look, the world is still here, with sunsets and interlibrary loans. [loc. 920]

Mori, protagonist of Among Others, is more or less the same age as me: like me, books -- especially SF and fantasy books -- are her salvation. Unlike me, she has recently saved the world, and has the scars to prove it.

Mori's twin sister, Mor (one's short for Morganna, one for Morwenna) was hit by a car and died; the same accident left Mori in constant pain, unable to walk without a stick, and estranged from her mother, who is a witch.

Mori runs away and ends up with her father, who has never been a part of her life. He, and Mori's three aunts, send her off to boarding school. In a reversal of the Potter trope, school is a bastion of normality. Mori even, tentatively, makes friends, and she joins an SF reading group at the local library. But there is still magic in the world, and Mori has unfinished business -- quite aside from the ordinary pressures of growing up, interacting with non-relatives, and testing the interlibrary loan scheme to its limits.

There is so much here that is familiar, and so much that is strange. I laughed and I wept. I disagreed violently (Creatures of Light and Darkness is a marvellous book!) and had that lovely not-just-me sense of relief re The Magus. I too discovered Dragonsinger before I knew that Dragonsong existed. I ...

One criticism levelled against this novel is that it's nostalgic. Yes and no. Mori's reading, though it doesn't directly parallel her life outside books, shapes and influences her reactions to the mundane world. It's one thing to read Babel-17 at fifteen: quite another to read it just as you're having trouble communicating with others. Books save Mori's life; they show her alternative modes of behaviour; they give her the vocabulary to express (even if only to herself) what she wants. And they are an excellent source of metaphor, a filter through which she can interpret and relate to the beings she calls Fairies.

I was reminded of Pamela Dean's Tam Lin -- the mundanities of school / college life with a glimmer of magic here and there -- and also of Joanne Greenberg's beautiful and unsettling novel about mental illness, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden: in particular, the way the latter describes the landscapes and beings of Yr, the world that the heroine constructs as a defence against reality. I'm not suggesting that Mori is doing anything comparable, just that the eerie spikiness of the fairies resonates, for me, with Yr and its gods.

And now I'm gradually collating Mori's acerbic (and occasionally inaccurate) observations on the books she reads, and mapping them to my own ...

Weirdly, I wish I'd read this when I was 15. And I'd be fascinated to learn what it's like to read this if you haven't read the SF and fantasy classics that inform Mori's world.
We thought we were living in a fantasy landscape when actually we were living in a science fictional one. In ignorance, we played our way through what the elves and giants had left us, taking the fairies’' possession for ownership. I named the dramroads after places in The Lord of the Rings when I should have recognised that they were from The Chrysalids.[loc. 455]

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