Not at all far from the book-reading crowd

Does she or doesn't she?  Only her diary knows for sure ...

Does she or doesn’t she? Only her diary knows for sure …

At the beginning of a new year, the Beamers tackled a new book, the recent Hugo and Nebula winner, Among Others by Jo Walton.  A tale of a young woman growing up and dealing with the loss of a twin sister, the novel is partly based on Walton’s own life and her struggles with disability.  Its wealth of genre sf and fantasy references (particularly in superior relation to the other literature that the protagonist is reading, like Thomas Hardy) and its celebration of finding a sf/f reading group as a community of fellows made it a novel that awards voters loved to love.  The Beamers, however, are a bit more challenging to persuade.  We can be a bit “testy”, as Chris chose to put it.  

 Do You See What I See?

The book is presented as the diary entries of Morwenna (Mori) Phelps Markova, a 15-year-old Welsh woman sent to a boarding school by her absentee father after she runs away from a home life threatened by a witch of a mother.  The big question that divided the Beamers and made the entire evening into a running debate is, Is she?  Is Mori’s mother a witch who threatens the world with her magic?  In turn, this thought triggered a host of others: Does Mori actually see fairies?  Did her twin sister die in an accident triggered by malicious magic from their mother?  How much of Mori’s story is real (to the extent that any piece of fiction is real, that is)?  There was a severe split among the members on the topic of how reliable a narrator Mori could be.

Eileen thought that there was enough evidence of other characters interacting with both the fairies and with the incidences of magic that Mori could be trusted to be telling the truth.  Alan countered that we only have Mori’s word for the bulk of the story, with precious little confirmation that any of Mori’s experiences were, in fact, “factual”.  Are her aunts evil witches who have reduced her father to a puppet?  Or are they merely dabblers in magic who do not understand the forces that they are using and their evil consequences?  Or is Daniel, her father, just a weak-willed man who ran out on his wife and daughters and ran home to live in comfort, albeit with strings attached?  Magic works best, Mori tells us, when it makes someone do something that they already want or are inclined to do.  Which makes it a bit hard to pin down when it is working.

 Bring Me a Dream, Make Him the Cutest I’ve Ever Seen

One major point of contention was the reaction of Wim, the 17-year-old man on whom Mori’s affections alit.  There is a scene in the woods in which Wim apparently does see and hear and feel the presence of fairies.  Or does he?  Alan was willing to believe that Wim, a young man with a crush on a young woman who believes in fairies, could be induced to “see” fairies where none exist.  Or that Mori could even be imagining that Wim was believing in fairies, from her own crush on him.  Was there even a twin sister?  Alan found it suspiciously coincidental that Mori’s leg injury would clear up at the same time that she came to terms with her sister Morganna (also called Mor) dying and moving on to the Afterlife.

[Postscript: Linda pointed out that Mori’s leg injury, far from clearing up, was severe enough to cause her to have to cling to a fence to make it back from the confrontation with her mother.  Which ironically put Mori in the same circumstance as a character from the Thomas Hardy novel she disliked.]

Liz thought that it would be very damaging to the reader’s conception of Mori to conclude that she was simply imagining all the fairy sightings and all the magic, making Mori more a candidate for psychiatric treatment than a protagonist whose eventual liberation from a (magically) controlling mother we could cheer.  Liz wondered why this book would be the one to give us the first instance of an unreliable narrator, when we were willing to believe in magic and fairies in previous works.  I offered that the technique of unreliable narration is a tricky one for an author to perform successfully without unduly annoying readers, so most authors would shy away from using it.  But, I found Walton using it repeatedly throughout the book, to the point of even having Mori quote Louis the 16th (“Aujourd’hui, rien” – “Today, nothing”, recorded in his diary on the day of the storming of the Bastille).

 You Don’t Understand!  You’ve Forgotten What it’s Like!

The melodrama of adolescence was put forth to either explain the instances of magic and Mori’s subsequent guilt, or to explain them away.  Linda and Eileen both found ample ground for understanding how Mori could, in the situation of a family feud with her mother, inflate the threat from personal to global.  Alan and I both agreed that such an emotional magnification could occur and to an even greater extent, taking a simple family conflict and raising it to supernatural heights.  (If only Stephen King were here to clear up this confusion!)  Donna noted that even a seemingly trivial matter, like being denied permission to go to a party, could be enough to have a teen run away from home, but Mori seemed to be reacting from stronger motives.  The idea of subtle magic was a very welcome one, we agreed, but the use of subtlety also produced the very deniability that makes this narrative so ambiguous.

 Do Not Meddle with Magic, for it is Subtle and Quick to Anger

The pacing of the book also brought out some criticisms.  Rick, e-mailing his comments, found the early part of the book to wander a lot, giving little indication of where the story might be headed, an observation that I echoed.  Kevin, in another e-mail, thought that the ending was a bit loosely joined to the rest of the tale, a comment that Alan also contributed.  The climax of Mori refusing the fairies’ request to join with her dead sister and fighting off her Tolkien-desecrating mother does pose some problems, no matter how we approached it.  The sudden explosion of “showy” magic (with pages of The Lord of the Rings changing into spears and then into trees) stands uneasily next to the previous descriptions of magic as subtle, unnoticeable.  Mori’s mother appears as a textbook fairytale evil witch, wart included, as Eileen noted.  And the book just ends with their battle.  The final note is a hopeful one, but the aura of Mori’s suicidal thoughts did not sit well with Eileen, who took them seriously enough to say therapy would be called for any character who was imagining such a scene and not actually living it out.  None of us found Mori to be a danger to herself, though we disagreed about her conception of reality.

 Time Enough to Read

What most Beamers found hard to credit, harder even than fairies, was Mori’s reading lists and her ability to devour stacks of books within days.  Her disability giving her time in the school library and not the gym and her superior academic ability reducing her study hours did not seem to provide enough hours in the day for all of her reading, even to multiple books in a day.  Having followed Jo Walton’s blog on Tor.com, where she reads or re-reads and then reviews books, even series of books, I was more disposed to credit Mori’s voracious literary appetite.  (Ms. Walton covers classic and recent works, and usually an entire series if the author is working on one.)  None of us, however, could believe Mori’s book group, who meet weekly(!) and discuss whole careers, not merely single works!  After 6 months, what would they have left to talk about?

I Will Fear No Fairies

In the end, we did all give the book good marks, a low of ‘6’ (I felt the lack of dramatic tension kept me from investing in the story much) to mainly ‘7’ and ‘8’.  Even if we would not vote the work an award, we all found a lot to enjoy in a simple tale of a young woman’s emotional journey to independence aided by the teachings of Heinlein (study history, languages, and science – well, actually RAH said “mathematics”) and the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear, touchstones we all have used ourselves.  If she would not mind the slow pace, we would like to invite Mori to join a Beamer meeting, sometime.

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1 Comment

  1. I was going to object to the conjunction of book-reading and madding; that book-reading typically occurs far from the madding crowd. But, in the context of this book, my objection cannot be sustained.

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