A few days ago I tweeted this: ‘I’m on page 156 of this book, and I still don’t know how I feel about it’. The book in question was My Real Children by Jo Walton.
Truth is, I finished it, and I still don’t know how I feel. It is by Jo Walton, so I liked it (because I like her writing style), and yet I didn’t. My Real Children is the most political book by Walton I’ve read. It is true that all novels are political, but I feel that in My Real Children this combination is heavily skewed to the political rather than the novel side. There is a way to skillfully work politics into fiction (and Walton has done it before), but, unfortunately, in My Real Children, the message took over the medium. I agree with its message, and yet I did not like the way in which the message was presented. It did not read like a novel.
It is by no means a terrible book. The characters are very well-done. Walton is a skilled writer and hooks you with the first few pages, so you want to sit down and find out what happens next. The first chapter lured me in because it seemed to ask: ‘what is it like to age and lose your memory? is it like living in different realities?’
Patricia Cowan is very old and confused. She remembers living two separate lives, with two separate families and children. Pat seems like an ultimate unreliable narrator: ‘her brain could not be trusted’. We get both her biographies in full, and herein lies the problem. There is no unreliable narrator. Patricia’s lives are reported as if on a biography channel or in a history book. The stories go on in a rather dull and linear manner that seem at best plain and at worst too predictable. Her lives are also where the book’s political messages lie. My Real Children is feminist/LGBT/human rights sci-fi at its most outraged. One Pat lives married to Mark, ‘this terrible smug man’, who demands she bears children even as it endangers her life. Another Pat struggles for acceptance of her relationship with a woman: ‘I hate it when people won’t acknowledge my family as real’. There is also alternate history, with things happening in slightly different way than in our world. But whereas Walton was brilliant at alternate history in Small Change books (Farthing and its two sequels), here her lists of events seem tiresome and therefore not as memorable or important.
But the main theme in My Real Children is aging, and how terrifying it is to lose your ability to care for yourself, to lose your memory and your connection to other people. Both Pats are scared of losing their mental faculties and becoming entirely dependent on families, and they fight old age and dementia the best they can (as opposed to becoming ‘resigned to being old and sort of mummifying in it’). As I get older, I find that I am drawn to the exploration of aging in fiction and older characters. It made me a little sad that I did not enjoy this book as much as I had wanted to.
My Real Children is a sad book by itself, and its sadness is amplified by the book’s end being simultaneously its beginning. Pat is old and confused when we first meet her. The rest is history. Or rather, histories.