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 caesarian section late in her life after she had given up hope. Two children of her body, and another, a stepchild, dearest of all. When any of them visited she knew them, knew how many there were, and the other knowledge felt like a dream (11)
A woman’s decision sets her life on two separate paths, and she appears to recall both in old age. Is one real? Are both? Is it better to find personal happiness in a hostile world, or a less satisfying life in a happier world? Does the acceptance of a lover’s proposal in Britain set off an assassination in Dallas? Award-winning author Jo Walton’s most recent novel quietly explores these questions.
Title: My Real Children
Author: Jo Walton
First published in May 2014
In 2015, a woman with encroaching geriatric dementia recalls two very different lives in two different realities.
The book begins with a strong premise and an engaging account of Pat/Trish’s early years. The journey to the conclusion may be uneven, but that conclusion evokes thoughts about the nature of life, memory, and choices. My Real Children may be Walton’s most broadly-accessible book—the kind of thing certain mainstream readers like to pretend isn’t really SF, so that they can feel good about enjoying it, too.
The book has strange pacing, mostly the result of its ambitious premise. Walton delivers two convincing versions of the protagonist’s life, each branching from a decision she makes in her early twenties. In her fiction, as in real life, the years move with increasingly rapidity as Pat/Trish grows older. The result, however, is the reader feels inundated by everyday events and underdeveloped characters. I always felt for Pat/Trish, but I had difficulty feeling for or, in some cases, relating to the army of friends, relatives, and narrated histories. Many readers will find some of these events uninteresting, while others will find the book devotes too little time to them.
Originality: 5/6 Walton has made original use of a jonbar point premise. I particularly liked the way she follows through on the choice made by, for, and around Patricia– and that neither of her twentieth / early twenty-first centuries are quite ours. Both her twenty-first centuries raise interesting questions, while providing presents a little more like the futures we both desired and feared.
Story: 5/6 Despite some oddities in pacing, I wanted to keep reading this novel, to see how the protagonist tries to resolve the seemingly unresolvable dilemma she encounters in the first chapter.
Characterization: 4/6 I experienced difficulty assessing character, because the two incarnations of Patricia, over the course of two lives, have been exceptionally well-rendered. I found that too many of the book’s numerous characters have been developed too little for the novel to have the impact it should.
Emotional Response: 5/6
Editing: 5/6 The lost point results from story/character-related problems addressed elsewhere in the review. Stylistically, Walton remains a gifted writer; if anything, her already-impressive prose has improved.
Overall score: 5/6
In total, My Real Children receives 34/42