Wednesday, July 9, 2014

My Real Children by Jo Walton

In 2015, an elderly bisexual woman struggles with dementia in a nursing home in Lancaster, England. Patricia Cowan remembers two different simultaneous lives.

"It was when she thought of her children that she was most truly confused. Sometimes she knew with solid certainty that she had four children, and five more stillbirths: nine times giving birth in floods of blood and pain, and of those, four surviving. At other times she knew equally well that she had two children, both born by caesarean section late in her life after she had given up hope. Two children of her body, and another, a stepchild, dearest of them all."

Montreal author Jo Walton explores the ramifications of choice in My Real Children. Patricia was born in 1926. Her life travels a single path until she is asked to make a momentous decision in 1949. At that point, her life splits in two different directions. The narrative then flips back and forth between Tricia, who marries Mark, and Pat, whose life partner is Bee, a woman. In either case, it is clear that Patricia remains fundamentally herself.

Much of this novel concerns quotidian life for women in the twentieth century.

"[Tricia] made friends with other mothers of small children, and haunted the library with desperation, burying herself in books, the longer the better. She read Middlemarch and found it almost too painful, seeing herself in Dorothea and Mark in Casaubon."

(I've encountered so many references to Middlemarch lately. They seem to be prodding me to get started on that book.)

When her children were grown, Tricia began teaching an evening class in Feminist Literature. "'Some people say women have never achieved anything great,' she said, as she opened her eyes. 'This class is going to demonstrate that women have achieved great things over and over again, but they've been patronized and ignored whenever they have. [...] I'm going to begin by reading you a translation of a poem written by Sappho in the Sixth Century before Christ.'"

The equation [reality + what if? = science fiction] can be applied to My Real Children, although the novel isn't very science fiction-y. There are alternate world histories that go along with Patricia's alternate realities. A world with the United Nations and one without. A world with growing cultural acceptance of same-sex rights, and one without. A world in which President Kennedy had been assassinated and one where he had not. A world in which no nuclear bombs had been dropped after Hiroshima, and one with more.

While hardcore science fiction fans may wish that the background politics and technology had more emphasis, readers looking for character-based feminist stories should be well pleased. Following a single possible life for Patricia would not have been nearly as emotionally and intellectually engrossing as two. The question remains: what makes us who we are?

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