I asked to review ‘My Real Children’ partly because I met Jo Walton and provided the cover for her ‘Guest of Honour Special’ at Novacon 43 but had never read any of her novels and also because it was listed as ‘SF’. It isn’t – at least not ‘as we know it’ – and neither is it fantasy, for which Jo is best known. It is one of those books that is genre-defying, but I suppose it is Science Fiction in much the same way as ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’. Not that it has any similarity to that, inasmuch as it concerns what we call alternative (alternate, US) timelines or the multiverse. But there is no science or attempt to explain this and none is needed. As such, it may be read and enjoyed by anyone, whether they consider that they like SF or not.
How many of us have not considered writing a story in which choices are made, with totally different results? Certainly I have. You know, you walk down the road and take a right fork, where you meet someone who changes your life. Or you take a left fork and pick up a dropped wallet which plunges you into an adventure. How do you handle it?
The novel opens in the year 2015, when Patricia Cowan is nearly 90 and in a residential home. Her medical notes show her as ‘Confused’ and no wonder. Up to the end of World War Two, her memories are fixed. She goes to Oxford University and, at this point, she meets a rather awkward young man, Mark, whom she comes to believe loves her, as she does him. Then comes a phone call in which he forces her to make a choice, to marry him or not. This is where her world changes.
In one, Patricia becomes Tricia or Trish: in the other Patsy, Patty or Pat. In the first, she says, ‘Yes’ and marries Mark, a Roman Catholic, who proves to be domineering and bullying. Neither is experienced sexually, but he treats Tricia only as a baby machine, each time bringing home a bottle of wine ‘to relax them’ when he expects to have his clumsy and brutal way with her.
This eventually results in a number of miscarriages, but also four healthy children and, in later chapters, we learn how they develop and have careers with one, Doug, becoming a minor but quite successful rock musician. He has a hit record, ‘Getting Married On The Moon’, which later comes true for another son. For, in both worlds, the only real science fictional element is the human race has a much greater presence in space than in our own world, with orbital stations, bases on the Moon and missions to Mars. But in one, the Europeans and Russians work together but the Americans are bitter and suspicious rivals and there are missiles on the Moon waiting to rain down, while in the other East and West cooperate peacefully.
Pat’s world develops quite differently. She says, ‘No’ to Mark’s marriage proposal, spends money saved for the wedding on a holiday in Italy and becomes a successful writer of guide books, starting with Florence, where she eventually lives for part of each year with the woman she has fallen in love with, Beatrice, known as ‘Bee’. Both have children, three in all, with the help of a man of whom they are both fond and these, too, grow up and have their own lives, calling one mother ‘Mum’ and the other ‘Momma’. Here again, one boy, Philip, becomes a successful musician and composer, though this time of classical music. The book is written in alternate chapters, Trish then Pat, without either acknowledging the world and lives of the other.
In one, President John F. Kennedy is assassinated, though in a different manner. In the other, Kennedy goes on living but does not run for election again after the Cuban missile crisis. In one world, nuclear weapons are used by various countries and with horrific fallout effects, such as cancers; in the other, not. Later in the book, these have a serious effect on some of the characters.
Ironically, it is not until the final chapter, when Trish/Pat has dementia and is in a nursing home, that she bemusedly tries to sort out in her mind why she has memories of two lives, two sets of children and grandchildren, all seeming equally real and hence the title. How could this be? Both Pat and Trish had marched for peace, had written many letters and joined organisations which attempted to make the world a better place. Could either really have made any difference? There are mentions during the book of the ‘butterfly effect’. Could the fact that she married Mark possibly have tipped the balance so that her own unhappiness led to the world becoming a happier one? I suspect that Jo Walton is suggesting that it could and that one person can make a difference, but this is not made clear. I recommend that after reading the final chapter you immediately re-read the first one, because it does help to clarify what happened during those two lives.
There are obvious messages about feminism and, indeed, about homosexual marriage. It makes very clear why this became necessary since, before it was changed, the law made life horribly difficult for men or women who wanted to live together, especially when it came to dividing up their homes, belongings and children after death or any other form of separation.
I did not realise that this is a reprinted US Tor edition until I came across spellings such as ‘neighbor’ and ‘pajamas’. I have also never understood why Americans capitalise ‘Earth’ but not ‘Moon’ or indeed ‘Sun’, all are proper nouns and indeed are the most important bodies in the universe to us and surely they deserve that? But this is just a personal soapbox! The book does have messages about personality, on the nature of family and of happiness and, because they may read it on a more emotional level, I suppose that some may consider this a ‘woman’s book’. I enjoyed it and indeed it opened my eyes to some issues that I had not really considered before. So I suppose it succeeded on some levels and I recommend it as an unusual and thought-provoking read.
David A. Hardy
(pub: TOR/Forge, 2014. 317 page small hardback. Price: $25.99 (US), $28.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-3265-3
pub: Corsair/Constable Robinson, 2014. 317 page hardback. Price: £19.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-47211-562-1)