Among Others – Jo Walton

Among OthersUnreal, unreliable, but true.


Among Others
by Jo Walton.

Stars: Four and a half of five.
Cover summaryAmong Others is at once the compelling story of a young woman struggling to escape a troubled childhood, a brilliant diary of first encounters with the great novels of modern fantasy and SF, and a spellbinding tale of escape from ancient enchantment.

This is a great book, but I don’t think I can say precisely why. It seems Among Others is hard to describe, especially if you liked it. I’ve seen similar comments by other reviewers, so it’s not just my own fault in finding words elusive here.

The narrator Morwenna is a fourteen or fifteen-year-old Welsh girl, sent to English boarding school after running away from home.  Following a very brief prologue set in 1975 which establishes her happiness and magic in what came before, we move decidedly into Morwenna’s new life in 1979 at boarding school and otherwise in the care of her long-estranged father.  We only learn gradually during the entire novel why she now needs a cane to walk and what happened to her sister.

Mori was an unreliable narrator for me, even in the prologue when she casts a flower spell with her twin sister. I wondered – does this twin even exist?  Did that magic just happen?  What was the conflict with their mother?  This is not a negative point, mind you: the writing is so excellent that you trust its truth even when you don’t know what is real.  There’s a very strong sense of dislocation or even dissociation – she’s such an outsider. It’s not just her physical impairment. She does not seem to belong in the mundane world.

The title Among Others fits with Mori’s distance from everyone. I don’t mean it is as frivolous as a pun, but there is a double meaning. The others is a term often used in fantasy fiction to refer to fairies… but in this case, it is the human girl Mori who feels among others when she is in the ‘real world’ – an English boarding school or her father’s home. Fairies exist, but they are not alien to Mori despite their appearance.  I like how Mori’s acceptance of  magic is completely matter-of-fact. Mori does not think of it as a special gift or blessing. It’s just how things are. Magic, finding new science fiction books, or personality clashes with schoolmates are equally critical to her.  The result is almost like magic realism.

Ware Spoilers below

Disappointments

  • A karass of who what then? Cannonball Read’s complaint about not knowing enough of the SF references… I did not get many of them, at least not to the point of knowing them instinctively in the way that would provide the right sense of recognition. It did not bother me too much, though, because I understood how books can mark out periods of your life.  Where it did bug me was not knowing the meaning of karass.  I suppose it’s some sort of friend, or group of friends, maybe platonic or not, I have no idea.  I don’t even know which author/book coined the phrase. Because I read this book in a single session (until 4 am oops) I did not stop to google it.
  • Spoilers on the cover. The following part of the library/cover summary is so completely misleading. It makes the story sound linear and sensible.  Is it really from the book cover? I only agree with a few of the sentences. In particular, I don’t like how it nails down the narrative chronologically. Part of the allure is in the gradual reveal of what came between life as twins vs life in England.

Raised by a half-mad mother who dabbled in magic, Morwenna Phelps found refuge in two worlds. As a child growing up in Wales, she played among the spirits who made their homes in industrial ruins. But her mind found freedom and promise in the science fiction novels that were her closest companions. Then her mother tried to bend the spirits to dark ends, and Mori was forced to confront her in a magical battle that left her crippled–and her twin sister dead.Fleeing to her father whom she barely knew, Mori was sent to boarding school in England “a place all but devoid of true magic. There, outcast and alone, she tempted fate by doing magic herself, in an attempt to find a circle of like-minded friends. But her magic also drew the attention of her mother, bringing about a reckoning that could no longer be put off.

Combining elements of autobiography with flights of imagination in the manner of novels like Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, this is potentially a breakout book for an author whose genius has already been hailed by peers like Kelly Link, Sarah Weinman, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

Successes

As a whole, this book really just worked for me.  I don’t want to wreck it through over-analysis.  From that point of view, I give up on using complete and grammatical sentences.  I will finish up now with some rambly thoughts.

In some ways, experiencing this book was like trying to think in a foreign language.  You can almost think, and you’d certainly be able to talk, but you’re aware that it’s not your usual fluency.  Or the fugue state of being completely over-tired – e.g. from caring for a newborn night after night.

You know how I built up a case in my review of Dragonhaven, that the narrator over there is deliberately unreliable because of what he’s endured?  That took after-the-fact analysis. In reading this book, I felt right up front that the narrator wasn’t quite inhabiting the same world as the rest of us.

A little bit like Connie Willis’ darker writing (All my darling daughters) – that’s in a school setting. The narrator’s voice also almost reminded me of the narrator’s growing insanity in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.

—.~.~.~.—

Other reviews of Among Others (added by me, not generated)

  • Positive review from JW Harris.
  • Jo Walton’s own discussion page for Among Others.  My own approach is to know minimal information about the book, and/or even the author before reading.  Guessing about authorial intent is bad for me.  Wondering which aspects are fictional or autobiographical would distract me.  Even the little amount that I did know (that this book was possibly autobiographical) was too much.
  • Among Others didn’t work out for Cannonball Read 3.
  • Chad Orzel gripes about someone else’s review of Among Others… which possibly means that he agrees with me that this magic is real. I agree – looking for themes and subtext can sometimes go too far.
  • Gushing review with extensive use of the word brilliant at Stainless Steel Droppings.  I think I agree most with this review.  This book is hard to describe – it pulls you in so convincingly, and yet if you try to describe it, you are more likely to break the mood that’s been created.

Did I overlook your review? Let me know in a comment, and I will add the link here.

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  1. #1 by Carl V. on May 30, 2011 - 1:45 am

    I am glad you enjoyed the book and had fun reading the links to other reviews you included. It was hard not to gush with the personal experience I had with the book. That experience wasn’t diminished much when I turned around and immediately began reading it aloud to my wife. She enjoyed it a great deal as well. Among Others is a special book, I think in large part because it obviously came from a very personal space in the author, one that I could certainly relate to in regards to books and the joy of finding others to talk about books with.

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