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