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My Real Children, by Jo Walton

Review copy provided by Tor. Further, not only is the author a personal friend, but I helped with this book in draft. You can go to the acknowledgments in the back and see where it says so, pretty specifically.

Various individuals and movements in SFF have talked about how they draw inspiration from whomever they please (I remember one China Mieville manifesto in the pages of Locus waxing poetic on this theme in particular), but I don’t recall seeing very many SF novels that were actually inspired by the sort of mid-century British women’s literary fiction that informs My Real Children, authors like AS Byatt and Rumer Godden–or even their cross-ocean counterparts, Gail Godwin and Margaret Atwood. This very much does. My Real Children is the story of a woman’s life and family, bifurcated. Patricia Cowan starts out singular, a seven-year-old on the beach in the UK of the 1930s, and for her early days as Patsy and Patty we see a unified storyline. Then there is the crucial moment, the split, and it is–as is appropriate for the style of book that this is–a marriage proposal.

Up until that point, Patricia’s world could be our world. After that she is both Pat and Trish, and neither of her worlds are ours. The divergence happens slowly and on human scale–there is no sudden alien landing, no moment where one of the versions of our heroine turns out to be a cyborg from the future–but the small changes are real and important, both to the world at large and to Patricia as a person. Some things that seem like her core self remain constant–when she is an old woman, she remembers two lives, so she conceives of herself as one, as herself. Others–everything from faith to food–diverge sharply enough to call core self into question.

Which makes it sound like an intellectual exercise, when it’s not that, or not just that, it’s deeply emotional. Each of the characters gets highly personal joys and sorrows, very sharp emotional relief but also bits of keenly observed mundane life that doesn’t quite line up with the way mundane reality worked out in our own timelines. All sorts of bits of women’s lives that get ignored or swept off to the sidelines in traditional science fiction are front and center here, and it is a richer book for them.

It’s a very strange feeling, trying to write an ordinary review post about a book that I already talked to the author about in this much detail while it was in draft. I’m all ready to talk about how it makes me hungry for gelato, how I thought of this book when people my age were moaning about how it didn’t feel like twenty years since Kurt Cobain died and I blurted out, “Come on, not only had I not had sex then, I hadn’t even had gelato,” and then I thought of My Real Children and whether there was a branched-off universe in which I never had gelato, not even once. I don’t think so. It doesn’t sound like me. But then it wouldn’t have sounded like Pat, either, so there we are, not knowing which column it goes in, the unchanging fundamentals or the large looming things that get oddly swept aside as a result of small perturbations. And now it’s coming out soon and the rest of you can read it and see what I mean about the gelato and how Bee is the best but Bethany is pretty good too, how we make the best lives we can in the worlds we have to deal with and sometimes the best lives and the best worlds are not at all convergent.

I love this book because it’s doing more than one thing I like at once in ways that nobody else is doing, and even if other people start doing more of it, it’s full of concrete specifics, so I will still love this one, the way the children are in passport control and the way one experience in college informs two evolutions of viewpoint in entirely different ways. I love the bits of this book that don’t go the obvious places they might have. It has wrenching horrible pieces and is not always easy to read, but it would not have the impact that it does on me if it didn’t. Most of all, though, the overlap of influences gives it such rich context that I really enjoy, and I will be interested to see how people who come to it from only one part of that context or another find and enjoy it.

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