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My Real Children by Jo Walton (2014) 254 p.
Patricia is almost ninety years old, living in a nursing home, and her memory is failing as Alzheimer’s takes hold of her mind. More alarming than her memory loss is the fact that she seems to recall two completely different lives: one in which she married young and had four children, and another in which she never married but nonetheless had three children. She remembers President Kennedy being assassinated, but she also remembers him declining to run for president again after a limited nuclear war. She knows there is a permanent base on the moon – but is it for scientific research, or is it bristling with nuclear missiles?
My Real Children takes us through Patricia’s childhood and early adulthood, up to the splitting point where her two separate lives begin: the moment she either accepted a marriage proposal from a failed and penniless scholar named Mark, or the one where she rejected him.
In her life as “Tricia,” where she marries Mark, things quickly turn ugly. The warmth of their courtship is replaced by an emotionally abusive monster who more or less imprisons her in the kitchen and makes her bear him four children even after repeated stillbirths and miscarriages. This segment is a little forced, but no less horrifying for it – a grim reminder of how few rights women had as recently as the 1950s.
In her life as “Pat,” where she rejects Mark, she travels to Italy, teaches at Cambridge, writes a series of successful travel guides and eventually enters a loving and stable lesbian relationship with a woman named Bee, having children together through the use of a friend and sperm donor. This life, again, sometimes feels too warm and sugary sweet at first, but achieves poignancy because of its ongoing parallel in alternate chapters. There was no doubt in my mind that, could a twentysomething Pat peer into the life of a twentysomething Tricia, she’d be ashamed of herself. And when Pat eventually bumps into Mark again in her own lifetime, purely by coincidence, it could be no less terrifying than if a tiger had entered the room. Nothing comes of this brief encounter – he has no power over her in this timeline, of course – but the reader knows full well the torments he so easily could have inflicted on her. “We would have found each other no matter what,” Bee tells Pat at one point while they’re discussing their sexuality, which is terribly sad because of course it isn’t true.
Meanwhile, the world itself is diverging. Although Tricia is miserable, her world is one of nuclear disarmament, women’s liberation, gay rights and technological advancement. Meanwhile, Pat is happy, but lives in a world plagued by terrorist bombings, limited nuclear exchanges and creeping fascism. Nothing Patricia ever does in either life is more significant than marching in peace campaigns or running for city council, but My Real Children operates on the butterfly effect. In her nursing home, trying to come to terms with her divergent memories, she thinks to herself:
She hadn’t been important, in either world, she hadn’t been somebody whose choices could have changed worlds.
But what if she had been?
What if everyone was?
I’ve seen other reviewers complain that the idea of divergent lives never amounts to much; Gwyneth Jones concludes at the Guardian that “it seems that the state of the world doesn’t really matter to women – having children makes up for everything.” I have to disagree, at least with the implicit complaint that the book is somehow anti-feminist, which is the last thing I’d accuse it of being – it’s been a long time since I read something which reminded me how cruelly unfair the world was to woman until so recently, and how hard-won the battles of the 1960s and ‘70s were. My Real Children posits that while we make choices which radically change our lives – sometimes very bad choices, which result in a lot of misery – all our lives are nonetheless rich tapestries, and in all of them we can find some purpose and fulfilment and love.
I liked My Real Children a lot more than I really should have, on the whole. A lot of it is summary rather than scene, a lot of it can be a bit forced or on the nose, it loses steam towards the end as both of Patricia’s lives begin to wind down in a fog of dementia, and it gets a little hard to keep track of all the grandchildren, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law. I nonetheless found it a very readable, compelling and thoughtful book – missing some certain spark which would have made it great, but still well worth reading.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (1939) 164 p.
I’m not normally a fan of the mystery genre, but I’ll try anything once, and Agatha Christie is one of those authors who is so famous and so much a part of our cultural fabric that I felt like I had to read at least one of her books. And Then There Were None – which is the newer, modern title, the book having gone through two more offensive iterations – is widely regarded as her finest mystery, and in fact was recently voted as such.
Eight strangers are invited to a country manor on a remote island off the coast of Devon. Upon arrival they find their host – not someone personally known to any of them – is nowhere to be found, and the house contains just two servants. At dinner, the ten of them are suddenly subjected to a gramophone recording which accuses each of them of murder, or at least manslaughter – and then one by one, the murders begin, until it becomes clear to those gathered that the murderer is Somebody In This Room.
Christie’s writing style is quite basic, and in particular there’s an awful lot of single sentences which only serve the purpose of logistics: “Lombard re-entered the room,” that sort of thing. I assume this all serves the purpose of the eagle-eyed readers of the 1930s who were jotting down notes as they read, treating this (and all novels in the genre, I suppose) less as stories than as puzzles or games. The characters, in turn, are not so much people as they are pieces on a board, with their attributes and personalities just being further clues for the machinations of the mystery. That’s all fine, I suppose, but it’s not really for me.
As for the solution to the mystery – which has been hailed as “ingenious,” “cunning” and “soundly constructed” – I found it ludicrous.
Putting aside the fact that Wargrave getting the revolver away from his post-suicide body requires the use of an elaborate rubber band contraption to slingshot it back out the door and onto the landing (I mean, come on!) this master plotter somehow overlooks the fact that although he was “supposed” to have died in the sitting room, his bed will now be coated in a fresh layer of blood and brains, and the police will find an inexplicable bullet hole in the pillow and mattress beneath him. This is the most egregious hole in the mystery, but far from the only one. If this is the best novel by the best writer in the genre, count me out.
Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds (2006) 392 p.
Alastair Reynolds’ debut novel Revelation Space suffered from many of the problems that plague the sci-fi genre (poor characterisation, bad pacing, plot-driven dialogue) but nonetheless displayed a bold imagination and fairly unique vision. Reynolds’ space opera is not an exciting, swashbuckling galaxy stuffed to the brim with interesting alien species and diverse, exotic worlds. Instead, it’s a cold, quiet and eerie place, haunted by the ruins of extinct civilisations, with only a handful of hostile worlds in which humanity has managed to gain a toehold of civilisation. It’s a more realistic portrayal of humanity’s interplanetary future, which treats space as the frightening and dangerous place that it is – the sort of fiction the Alien theme is suitable for.
Galactic North is a collection of eight stories set in the Revelation Space universe, spanning a period from 2200 to 40,000 A.D. I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to read it, but I found it at the library and enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to. From my limited experience Reynolds seems to be better at writing short stories than novels; obviously he has to display more restraint and pare away all the extraneous crap that bloated Revelation Space out, but I also think I’m more tolerant of stilted dialogue in a short, engaging sci-fi story than I am in a long novel.
I’m also a sucker for a sci-fi mystery, and most of the stories in here slot into that category – so even when they’re quite basic and don’t amount to much (“Great Wall of Mars,” “Glacial”) I still found them very compelling. The stand-out piece for me was probably “Nightingale,” a creepy body horror story about a hired group of mercenaries attempting to recover a war criminal from a long-lost hospital ship, recently rediscovered at the edge of a star system. Penetrating the darkness within the abandoned ship, they find that it’s not quite as dormant as they suspected, and after a slow burn of horror the story ends with a gruesome twist.
Spanning far more of Reynolds’ imagined galaxy in both space and time, Galactic North doesn’t have quite the same sense of lonely dread that I enjoyed in Revelation Space. It is, nonetheless, a further exploration of a fictional universe very different to most of the other space operas floating around out there. If creepy, Lovecraftian, horror-infused space exploration is your thing, you should definitely check Reynolds out.