liv: Bookshelf labelled: Caution. Hungry bookworm (bookies)
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Author: Jo Walton ([ profile] papersky)

Details: (c) 2010 Jo Walton; Pub 2011 Tor; ISBN 978-0-7653-2153-4

Verdict: Among Others has some astoundingly good features, but doesn't quite hang together.

Reasons for reading it: The LJ posts where [ profile] papersky was talking about it made it sound like an absolutely marvellous book, and then everybody on the internet was raving about it.

How it came into my hands: I bought it as a brand new hardback the week it came out. Partly because it's a book I was really excited about, and partly because I wanted to support [ profile] papersky and partly because Tor seem to have this bizarre artificial scarcity thing going on where they don't publish Walton's books in affordable formats, and they make people outside the US jump through stupid hoops to get them (even though she's one of their most successful authors).

I didn't love Among Others quite as much as I expected to, and I feel particularly awkward giving it a mixed review. Not only do I sort of know the author, at least via her LJ, but she's often pointed out that it's semi-autobiographical, so any criticism of the book could very well be read as personal. I think I'm just going to go ahead and write down my opinions anyway, because it's a book that made a strong impression in spite of what I perceived as its flaws.

Things that are wonderful about Among Others: the magic. Wow, I absolutely love the deniable magic, and the fairies, and the sense of numinous, and the terror of a world that doesn't reliably work according to predictable rules. The opening scene with the girls cursing the factory, and the last-but-one diary entry, rank among the best fantasy writing I've ever come across. The prose is incredible, the imagery is incredible, I can't enthuse about those passages enough. The other thing is the depiction of bereavement and grief; the book opens shortly, though not immediately, after the death of Mori's beloved twin sister. This isn't just a convenient plot hook, but something that really shapes her character, and the insight into her psychological journey is almost uniquely well-crafted, deeply moving without being sentimental.

So you've got a really potent mixture of fantasy and psychological realism, but the problem is that the setting for this is a rather slight story about Mori being sent to a boarding school where she's miserable, but finding people who truly understand her in the form of SF fans. The characterization is very good, and I think partly I didn't quite do the book justice because I read it too fast, I found I had to keep reading just one more diary entry, and ended up getting through the whole thing almost at a gulp. Perhaps in fact Mori is too well portrayed; misunderstood teenaged girls tend to be pretty self-centred anyway, and pain is well known for making people self-obsessed, so the very convincing characterization here makes it a bit hard to care whether she'll actually manage to find any friends.

It's very plausible for social outcasts to band together whether or not they genuinely like eachother, and of course a lot of the point of the book is that Mori doesn't fit in at all into mainstream teenage society, and that is why she needs to discover fandom. But I felt a bit uncomfortable about the portrayal of Mori's three "friends" at school; she seems awfully smug about how open-minded she is being friends with an Irish girl, a Jewish girl and a lesbian. She shows little evidence of friendly behaviour or feelings towards any of them; she mostly talks about how Deirdre is stupid, Sharon's Jewish customs are weird, and how very awesome she is for not disapproving of Gill's sexuality, even though she herself is incredibly and undeniably straight. Totally realistic for that kind of misfit teenager writing in her very private diary, of course, but all it did was make me want to know more about how it felt to be Deirdre, Sharon or Gill in a boarding school in 1979. Mori is of course more weird, and therefore more interesting, than her three companions, since she has a visible physical disability, and has escaped from an abusive family and a care home, and she can see fairies and do magic (on top of being Welsh and geeky and the wrong social class).

I had very mixed feelings about the relationship with Wim. That's partly my issues, of course; the way the story was going, I was really hoping for a positive example of a story about a nerdy teenaged girl finding acceptance, where Getting a Boyfriend is not the main point. I probably ought to be grateful that what we do get is an intensely sexual friendship which is neither True Love nor a horrendous and much regretted mistake. What spoiled that outcome for me, though, was the way Wim is introduced as someone who has a bad reputation after a not entirely consensual interaction with his previous girlfriend, but turns out to be completely vindicated. It almost sounds like the anti-feminist cliché, where the life of a perfectly decent, upright young man is ruined by a malicious false accusation by a crazy ex. I just can't imagine a situation (let alone in a 1980s small town) where a teenaged girl gets pregnant, and she is widely seen as the poor innocent victim and her boyfriend's reputation is ruined.

I can see why this book is rapidly becoming a totem for everybody who suffered as a teenager because their intellectual development was ahead of their emotional and social competence. For me, though, that's the least interesting part of the book, and not only because it's the kind of thing that's been done before. What's interesting, and powerful, is the way it uses a fantasy setting to portray the aftermath of some major trauma. The way the book is set after the events so that you only get glimpses of them (but such powerful glimpses!) is really brilliant. And the events which happened before the book begins are the kind of thing that doesn't get written about very much, or at least not well: an abusive mother and the way the extended family works round her to give the victims some kind of solace, the death of one sister and the disabling injury of the other (which may be to some extent their mother's fault), the teenager thrown on her own resources far too young because there isn't really anyone both competent and trusted by the official bureaucracy to parent her. I don't have any experience of an unhappy childhood, but I'm impressed because Among Others has much more resemblance to personal accounts I've heard from friends and bloggers (like Harriet J at Fugitivus), than to the typical misery-lit genre. By not dwelling on the details of Mori's childhood, Walton avoids any hint of voyeurism, but still creates an emotionally powerful impression.


Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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