Last year I read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, a novel about a woman who lives many lives depending on the choices she makes, and I didn’t particularly like it. Atkinson is a fine writer and I have liked many of her other books, but this one didn’t work for me–it felt too fractured and I never connected with the main character.
So when I heard that Jo Walton’s newest novel had a similar conceit, a “sliding doors” approach, I wondered what I would think of it. My Real Children has a palpable emotional resonance from the start, I am pleased to say, and it isn’t an understatement to say that I absolutely loved it and was sad to see it end.
When the novel starts, it is 2015 and Patricia Cowan is in a nursing home. She looks at her chart and sees that the nurses have said she is V.C. or “Very Confused.” Patricia knows she is confused and the narration begins with her puzzling as to whether she had 4 children or 3. They all seem real. Could they all be real, or not?
Born in England in the 1920s, a student at Oxford in the 30s, Patricia finds that her life begins to branch into two paths after she left Oxford. In one life, she married Mark, an academic-minded young man she met at an Oxford party; in this life, most people call her Tricia. In another life, she falls in love with a woman, Bee, and writes travel books for a living; in this life, she is known as Pat. In both lives she has children, and Walton draws each of Tricia/Pat’s children in vivid, idiosyncratic detail.
I recently saw Jo Walton read and I asked her if she was inspired by a book she mentions in What Makes This Book So Great, Katherine Blake’s The Interior Life. She said that she wasn’t, necessarily, but that My Real Children is very much about mothering and about women’s lives and relationships. She said that genre doesn’t often enough explore these themes even though in any future or past women’s lives are going on regardless. I thought that this was an important point and My Real Children succeeds where many fantasy and science fiction novels fail–ignoring the domestic realities of women and children, casting them aside as though they don’t provide enough drama or aren’t worthy of note. Jo Walton’s My Real Children proves that this just isn’t true–you can write a thought-provoking, engaging fantasy while capturing life in its splendid and even banal complexities.
When you get to the end of My Real Children, you will find yourself pondering its questions, wondering, as Tricia/Pat does, whether parallel lives are possible. Another subtly magical novel by the inimitable Jo Walton. Highly recommended for your summer reading or your book groups.