Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Among Others by Jo Walton
Among Others by Jo Walton

Among Others
Jo Walton (bio)
Tor, 2011

Among Others by Jo Walton is a fascinating book full of languid prose.  Wistful, thought provoking, and able to touch upon my nostalgia as a fanatical reader of science fiction and fantasy it touched upon the aspects of the fantastic I love so much in a way, that for me at least, rang much truer than to the similarly themed The Magicians by Lev Grossman.  Also, Walton is obviously a great lover of libraries and the books constant exultations on the wonders of the place where I have chosen to stake my professional life always brought a smile to my face.  However, for all I felt that Walton is on the nose with the sense of community and the commonality that reading deeply in any genre brings there were times when Among Others was a bit of a struggle and where the constant name dropping of authors, stories, and novels occasionally grew wearying.

For those not in the know Among Others is the story of Morwenna, a teenage girl in 1960s Wales who has escaped the clutches of her mother who just happens to be a crazy witch.  That escape came at the cost though as Morwenna not only maimed her leg but lost her twin sister Morganna.  Morwenna, being a clever young woman, finds herself in the care of her estranged father (more-or-less driven off by her insane mother) and sent off, at the behest of her three spinster aunts (her father’s sisters), to a posh very British private school.  This is pretty much where the novel begins, in diary format, as Morwenna reveals her day-to-day life.   Intelligent and pragmatic Morwenna has little interest in conforming to the expectations of others; facts which find her alone more often than not.  Throughout the novel Morwenna finds comfort and succor in the thoughts and ideas of science fiction and fantasy (and some mystery, and philosophy, just about any book really) as Morwenna puts it herself “I care about so few people really.  Sometimes it feels as if it’s only books that make life worth living, like on Halloween when I wanted to be alive because I hadn’t finished Babel 17. I’m sure that isn’t normal.”  That conflict, Morwenna’s isolation partly due to her grief from the loss of her sister, aggravated by her inhibited mobility and enhanced by her straightforward and highly opinioned personality (often at odds with “proper” society) forms the crux of the novel’s conflict.

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph Walton, through Morwenna, offers a bit of paen for libraries throughout the course of Among Others.  Morwenna’s excessive use of the library’s Interlibrary Loan services and the sense of acceptance she finds amongst the science fiction book club hosted there are aspects that warmed the cockles of my own librarian heart.  Morwenna’s brief description of libraries in particular brought a smile to my face:  “Libraries really are a wonder.  They’re better than bookshops, even.  I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts.”  Of course, for all that Among Others is a love letter of sorts to books and libraries I couldn’t help but feel a bit saddened knowing the dire state of libraries across the United Kingdom’s libraries in the present day (see this map of potential closures and browse the site for more info).   For me at least the integral role the library plays in Among Others in allowing Morwenna access to books and materials she normally wouldn’t have is something that, even barring my profession, I can easily understand.  Like Morwenna, I can easily remember spending hours wandering amongst the stacks and those moments formed an integral part of my experience as a child, teen and adult.  I’m also willing to bet that many avid readers feel the same.  .

I haven’t yet touched upon the magic in Among Others.  Magic is, as Morwenna often points out, deniable.  It isn’t like in stories.  No codified system of rituals that produce a specific result; more art or instinct than science.  That element of deniability, particularly in the early stages of the novel, does cast some doubts as to Morwenna’s reliability as a narrator.  Since the majority of the novel takes place entirely from her point of view there were many moments when even I started to doubt whether magic is real or not.   The truth is that in Among Others magic is life as Morwenna reveals, “I thought, sitting there, that everything is magic.  Using things connects them to you, being in the world connects you to the world, the sun streams down magic and people and animals and plants grow from sunlight and the world turns and everything is magic.”  I think that sentiment, from late in the novel, contradicts Morwenna’s earlier beliefs about the deniability of magic.  That statement, “everything is magic” is a complete inversion: magic is undeniable.

Among Others is a vivid coming of age story that an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy (or avid readers of all stripes), will likely find familiar.  Over the course of novel Walton discusses a hefty number of authors and titles some of I hadn’t heard of but others I had (I particularly enjoyed Morwenna’s indignant reaction of the Tolkien comparison on the cover of the first Thomas Covenant novel).  The diary format, combined with the constant name-checking did at times grow wearying.  This is a fantasy novel of a different stripe.  There are no long journeys or otherworldly magical landscapes.  There is instead the over grown industrial ruins of Wales and the wonder of a good book on a long train ride.  Among Others, for me, was about finding magic in the mundane; magic that isn’t found in the pages of book but in our connectedness to the world and people around us.  Sometimes that connection is based on fiction and no less real because of it.

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