Genii loci

poppies
Poppies and bindweed growing on waste ground

Jo Walton Among Others Corsair 2013 (2010)

I was most struck many years ago by Arthur Koestler’s concept of the holon, which I understood as an organism that is both independent of and yet dependent on larger organisms, looking inwards as well as outwards, simultaneously a whole as well as a part. I thought of this when considering the title of Jo Walton’s Among Others because there is much in the novel which deals with aspects of this apparent dichotomy. Fifteen-year-old Mori has that natural angst which most teenagers have, of knowing herself to be different and yet wanting to be part of a group or community; how she deals with the conflicts that arise from such contradictions form the mainstay of this many-layered novel.

The novel is presented as excerpts from Mori’s diary over a six-month period, from September 1979 to February 1980 (coincidentally she is roughly the same age as the author, who was born in 1964). We learn that Mori’s twin sister has died and that at the same time Mori herself suffered severe damage to her leg, both somehow related to their mother’s use of black magic in the recent past. It’s clear that Mori has a strong sense of not being whole both because of the traumatic loss of her sibling and because of the constant pain she suffers. Add to that the pain she has of few friends, either from her old school in the South Wales valleys or at the boarding school she is sent to near Oswestry over the border in England. Alienation — the sense of being ‘among others’ but not part of them — is what characterises her life.

She seeks refuge in fantasy and science fiction and philosophy, pleasures which thankfully she can occasionally share with her father — himself estranged from her mother — and with her grandfather in London. And she is lucky to discover a reading group in Oswestry which focuses exclusively on speculative genres and with which she is able to trade literary passions. But she has a darker secret she find almost impossible to share: she is able to see sylvan folk, the Tylwyth Teg of Welsh folklore, those genii loci that more generally go under the name of fairies. These are not like the twee flower creatures pictured by Cicely Mary Barker nor the noble humanoids of Tolkien’s imaginings; rather they are beings caught fleetingly in peripheral vision, if at all, and their existence is threatened by the continued machinations of Mori’s deranged and dangerous mother.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, despite it straddling — or maybe because it straddled — so many different genres. It’s not a fairytale though it includes fairies; it’s not a boarding school story even though much of the action takes place in one; it’s not a fiction with an ecological message though it touches on green themes; it’s not a book that dwells on misery though it addresses the physical and emotional pains that come with disabilities, broken families and bullying. It’s a book rooted in a love of the Valleys, both for its fierce pride but also for the neglect that it’s gradually becoming prey to, and yet it celebrates a sense of place that is universal wherever one hails from. It’s also a novel that is in love with novels, that’s about how speculative fiction really deals not with escape but with very human concerns in the here and now.

This then is a book to savour, to ponder, and to probably reread. And greater praise I can’t proffer.

The now demolished Phurnacite smokeless fuels plant in Abercwmboi (walesonline.co.uk)
The now demolished Phurnacite smokeless fuels plant in Abercwmboi (walesonline.co.uk)

Author alphabet: W
I was encouraged to read Jo Walton, particularly this novel, by Nikki’s review 

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22 thoughts on “Genii loci

  1. I understand Jo Walton is a Welsh speaker. There seems to be a deep connection between the Celtic languages and the spirit world. Nice to read about a novel that I suppose could be classed as “young adult” with so many concerns and interests beyond the angst of the teenager.

    1. I’m with you on this, Gert, this is certainly a novel that speaks to any sensitive young adult experiencing growing pains and also to any grown-up sensitive enough to remember what it felt like!

      Now I’m going to be controversial. I think the myth of the Celtic temperament more sensitive to otherworldly concerns than the pragmatic Anglo-Saxon (the usual postulate set up for opposites) is precisely that, a myth, one promulgated in the 19C as an assertion of English superiority. (I speak as one with Irish, Scottish, English, Anglo-Indian and Portuguese antecedents and therefore one with several feet in lots of camps, if that’s possible!) The Victorian sense of the Welsh (and Irish, and the Scots to a lesser extent) as somehow mystic, closer to nature and as aboriginals physically short and dark was tied up with English beliefs that they were a ‘race’ with God-given rights to conquer and rule, justification for the expansion of empire.
      The fact is that English tradition was no stranger to the uncanny and wyrd, and to characterise, say, the Welsh as quaint and their language as part of the Celtic Twilight was merely to suggest that people and culture were somehow inferior.

      Sorry, rant over! As an Englishman living in Wales, with only passing acquaintance with its language and literature, I’m peculiarly aware that stereotypes don’t further the cause of mutual understanding. 🙂

      1. Interesting. I’ve never thought of it as suggesting that the culture was inferior. In fact, it seems to me (of Irish descent) that the Irish at least are rather proud of their other-worldly sensibilities. But as you say, these things are stereotypes.

    1. Thanks, Nikki, for persuading me to give it a try! I can see a little why it’s so personal to you, and I have to say that it’s a book that won’t be going to the charity shop just yet. Hope to settle on another title of hers before the year is out and relying on your reviews to help to choose!

      1. Hmmm… I’d be inclined to go with My Real Children — the characters are (most of the time) adults, and it’s a very interesting take on the concept of how small changes can cause big consequences.

  2. I remember being disappointed by this when I read it. But I’m pretty sure if I re-read it now, after having reading more SF & Fantasy, and well being just a different person than I was, I’d like it.

    One of the most interesting comments I read about this book was the reviewer’s take that the magic seemed quite ambiguous to them. In the sense that it could have been “real,” or it could all have been simply a product of Mori’s “imagination.” And the reader can never be sure which it is.

    1. You’re quite right (as is your reviewer) about the inherent ambiguity in the magic, and that’s part of the strength (I felt) in the novel. Rather than Mori being an unreliable narrator I was happy to take her experiences and feelings as I found them rather than assuming the magic was either/or — either completely in her imagination (even though few others had an inkling of its existence) or absolutely real (because most others were oblivious of anything untoward). Whether ‘real’ or not to us it was ‘real’ to Mori, and I accepted her emotional response to it as genuine.

      If you do reread it, Juhi, I’d be more than happy to hear your further response to it!

  3. This was my first Jo Walton and I’ve loved everything I’ve read by her since. This book is still an important one to me – I think I would’ve imprinted on Mori had I read it when I was younger – but my current favourite is My Real Children. I hope to reread this sometime this year!

    1. Since both you and Nikki have recommended My Real Children I shall be going for that next I think, Mari! Thanks. I was impressed by Mori’s intense, focused and yet sympathetic character, but also enjoyed the evocation and sense of place, as one of our daughters lives in the Valleys not far from where Mori’s childhood was spent, and where the climax (of sorts) takes place.

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