Jo Walton’s play with genre expectations

Jo Walton. Among Others (TOR 2010).

Jo Walton writes different books. And she writes them differently. Among Others can be read as her version of the boarding school novel, but it’s much more than that, a love letter to libraries & librarians, a study of a young brilliant & bibliophilic outsider, a fantasy about magic & its powers, an exploration of family & friendship. And it does all these things through the journal of 15-going-on-16 year old Morwenna Phelps, whose twin sister was killed in a car accident that broke her leg the year before.

So the set-up is complex & devastating: Morwenna will call herself Mor or Mori, the names she & her sister shared, one of her ways of keeping her twin ‘alive’ in her mind. Morwenna Phelps that was in Wales is now Morwenna Markova, the name of her father, who ran away when she was three, & who, with his 3 sisters, is now sending her to their school, Arlinghurst. She has left her home valley to escape her mad mother, & he has rescued her from a Home, so even though she doesn’t know him she knows that even a terrible school (& for her it is that, worse than the worst in Enid Blyton: she doesn’t know the other girls who have their own cliques, she can’t play sports, she’s too brainy, & she stands up for herself & her educational desires) is better than being left with her mother.

Morwenna’s journal, kept day by day from September 1979 to late February 1980, registers her activities, memories, introspection, & conversation with family members, new & old friends, and perhaps most importantly books, revealing an acutely intelligent & observant young mind at work. From the very beginning, she demonstrates an acute ability to notice things & a delight in books, especially SF&F. She’s already widely read & will read a lot more, partly because she has to spend time in the library during sports activities at the school. Anyone who was a teenage reader will identify.

On one level, Among Others is the usual tale of a young person learning how to deal with the world she finds herself in, discovering like-minded people at the local library, who have a book club dedicated to discussing science fiction & fantasy, even making a few friends at the school (other outsiders in their own way), learning to navigate the complex emotional waters around her father & her new aunts as well as with her newly discovered grandfather & the old family, aunts & grandfather, back in Wales. But then there are the fairies & the magic: she’s known both all her life, playing in the ruins of the Industrial Revolution in her Welsh valley, & her mother is a practicing witch as well as mad. In fact, if we believe her journal, Mor & Mori, with the aid of the fairies, prevented their mother from achieving great evil power, though it cost Mor her life & Mori her crippled leg. Thus the interesting mix of genres here.

Walton achieves her neatest swerve in genre conventions in her presentation of magic in Among Others: it’s completely deniable. At one point Mori observes: ‘You know, class is like magic. There’s nothing there you can point to, it evaporates if you try to analyze it, but it’s real and it affects how people behave and makes things happen.’ This excerpt shows Mori’s smarts while also revealing just how odd she would seem to the ordinary girls at Arlinghurst. But this is the thin knife edge on which the whole narrative balances. Looked at one way, every mention of magic & fairies simply reveals a somewhat psychologically unbalanced narrator who slowly recovers after the devastating loss of her twin sister & matures into a young woman able to face the real world again. But equally we can read it as we read all fantasies, enjoying the other world of magic it constructs.

Either way, Among Others represents the world of school, youthful & enthusiastic reading (Mori read Lord of the Rings years ago & it’s her favorite book, but she finds many others, at least some of which every one of her readers will know & have enjoyed, ‘brill’), intense thinking about one’s place in the world, what one might some day be, the kinds of friends a really intelligent young woman would want, with clarity & compassion. Readers will probably find themselves arguing with at least some of her likes & dislikes, just as the other members of the book club do, but like those people will also acknowledge her as an equal, not just some youngster to be humored. Her discovery that they take her seriously is one of her best moments. Her slowly growing intimacy with a young man just a few years older, her immediate liking of her father’s father, who gives her Plato to read (she’s already a fan of Mary Renault), her struggles with her new aunts, who want her to be perfectly normal which she is not, & with her mother’s influence, which frightens her, her growing understanding of the way each of her little worlds work, & her continually sharp observations of the minutiae of land & life all work to keep us entertainingly involved.

All the encomiums on the cover, by SF&F writers, point to their own experience reading those books & discovering new worlds, but Mori reads much more widely than just SF&F; she’s interested in history, in poetry (her discovery of T. S. Eliot is a major moment for she wants to be a poet), & in philosophy (Plato is obviously just going to be the beginning). What she does, though, is bring these other writings into argumentative contact with the sometimes socially eccentric ideas of SF (such as Delany’s, for just one instance). There is so much more to this deeply effective & affective novel, like the way the narrator sets it up in what we might call the preface to the journal, the way she thinks about & against a lot of what she reads, or how she maneuvers through various social situations, thinking hard but not always comprehending the little signs (of class among other things) she is only now learning to recognize. Among Others is, then, character-driven fantasy, which is why it feels a bit like conventional urban fantasy but is, in fact, something very different, & asks to be read as such. By the end, Mori has learned a lot & matured into someone who will, we feel, make her way into a pretty bright future, fully aware of her small part in the larger pattern that is life. But she’s still the active & delighted (& delightful) reader we met on page one; the last sentence is; ‘Gate of Ivrel turns out to be really brill.’

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