Among Others

Among_OthersJo Walton’s Among Others is the 1979 diary of Mori, a 15-year-old Welsh girl. As we gradually pick up bits of her history (because who would write down an entire narrative in a private diary?), we learn that she and her twin sister stopped her mentally-ill mother from ruling the world through black fairy magic, but that they suffered an accident in which Mori’s sister was killed and her own leg was severely injured. We also learn that Mori is a constant reader, mostly science fiction and fantasy but also history and classic literature. And that those two things — the fairy magic and the books — are equally important, equally serious, equally real — in her life.

As the book opens, Mori has been sent to an English boarding school, because her mother is no longer fit to care for her (if she ever was.) She has hours free to read, because she can’t participate in games and her lessons are easy for her, and many of her diary entries consist of brief analyses of the SF books she’s consuming wholesale. (There are never any plot summaries — only social, ethical, and stylistic questions that arise. If you haven’t read the book she’s discussing, you’re very much invited to.) But she’s an outsider, and completely alone, not knowing how to access her familiar magic (in Wales, fairies speak Welsh, but they won’t speak to her here in England at all) or how to make friends or where to look for people who like the same things she does. She needs wisdom and protection, and at first she finds it nowhere. Eventually, through magic (or not — this is left completely ambiguous), Mori finds a community, advisors, and new strength, but she still has to count on her own power to serve her in a final conflict with her mother’s dark forces.

 

I was trying to think through the difference between magic and not-magic in this book. It’s a bit tricky to determine. It’s not as if, for instance, books are “real life” and magic is separate from that. Walton establishes firmly that magic doesn’t exist without a deep connection to the real world: food you’ve cooked yourself, for instance, or blood, or trees and plants, or wild land that hasn’t been turned into a regulated common. It also has to do with language and belief; so, obviously, do books. Books are a solace and a joy in an otherwise isolated life. They are proof that there are authors whose minds happily meet our own, and proof that there must be other readers, too, who love the same books for the same reasons we do. That real connection is the same kind of connection we have with food, or blood, or land. So is it a sort of magic? Walton offers, I think, the idea that both writing and reading are magic, in a way, and reach back down to a rootedness and connectedness that can refresh and save us, however strong or isolated we are. Yet fairies aren’t actually people, and neither are books. We do need both (books and people, I mean, not fairies and books.)

I didn’t think this novel was flawless. Walton did maybe too good a job making the fairy magic seem ordinary and everyday to us, since it was something Mori grew up with. Then when we came on a really dramatic moment, such as at Halloween or at the end, the strangeness seemed over-the-top: why now? Why wouldn’t Mori know how to handle it? I really liked the discussion of the ethics of magic, but it seemed interestingly out of context for fairy magic, since (as far as I know) fairies have no ethics. I’d have liked to see some discussion of that. And (perhaps on a smaller scale) was Mori’s book-loving boyfriend, Wim, supposed to be a good guy? I thought he was kind of a jerk. Hang in there, Mori, you can do better.

Overall, however, I thought this was a wonderful novel. The tone was perfect, and it was such a joy to see all the books Mori was reading, and her eventual shift from someone alone, isolated by circumstance and pain, to someone connected to a larger community of friends and family, and all through books. It felt like a myth: Persephone coming through hell to be mostly safe on the other side, just a little pomegranate juice on her sleeve. I’m very glad I read it, and I still feel the happy resonance.

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20 Responses to Among Others

  1. Biblibio says:

    I think I must be one of the only readers out there who really didn’t like Among Others! I have… well, honestly I have a lot of criticism about various aspects of the book (basically everything from what felt like very sloppy world-building, to character development, to that ending), but I never know how to explain it because everyone else… just loves the book. I sort of always feel like readers (particularly SFF fans) see a lot of themselves in Mori and in her love of reading that the actual merits (or issues) with the novel are glossed over. Yes, it’s excellent to see a book in which a character is so clearly a fan, and the symbolism of some of the books is interesting, I suppose. But ultimately, without that, I really… ack. Have issues with the book. I’ll stop now, before I wade into a problematic internet argument…

    • Jenny says:

      Actually, I would love to hear your issues! I didn’t think much actually happened in the book, for one thing. I didn’t have problems with Mori’s characterization, but did you? Let’s hear it; I love good discussion!

      • Biblibio says:

        Mori’s characterization wasn’t the problem so much, but I really felt like all the other characters were sketches populating her world, with nothing that really interested me about them. This might be as a result of her own biases in presenting them, but it really frustrated me. Also that annoying thing with diaries that are written novel-style. It’s just… awful. One of my biggest literary pet peeves.

        As for plotting, the utter lack of it definitely frustrated me. There was a skeleton of a story (I’m not sure that expression works in English, but I’m sticking with it because I’m too tired to find the right phrase), and then a sudden whopping PLOT-ENDING that made no sense. I mean, I reached the end of the book and was certain something must be wrong with my library’s eBook. That’s not supposed to happen. There needs to be something.

        Mostly though, I think what frustrated me was that I couldn’t imagine anything beyond Mori. She’s a well-built character, living in an utterly gray world. Even the magic is so loosely explained that it’s not even really there, and I didn’t feel like I had any clear grasp on its ultimate meaning. It was like Walton wanted to write a book about fandom, felt like she needed to add magic to it, and then reworked a “magic plot” into a story that was actually just about how a love of books can change your life. If your book feels like its main plot-point is tacked on for the sake of existing… I don’t know, that seems really problematic to me. The fact that the magic made no sense and that there was no explanation for anything regarding it (or Mori’s mother, or really anything… I mean, just saying that magic is intrinsically tied to X is not enough for me) just made me want to throw the book at the wall.

        I know I sound really angry/harsh here – ultimately, as a reader and SFF fan, I won’t pretend that I didn’t enjoy Mori’s exploration of literature. It was nostalgic and pleasant and familiar. But from a purely literary perspective, I just think it’s a mess of a book. If it was meant to be a character piece – awesome, focus on Mori and how the magic of literature changes her life. If it was meant to be a fairy tale… build the world. Give it color and dimension. Don’t leave everything vague, because vague =/= clever/subtle.

        I don’t know, does any of this make sense? It’s been a while since I read the book, I’m sure I’m misremembering some things and maybe projecting other issues onto it? But I definitely remember wanting to throw the book at someone when I finished. And… well. Having the above issues.

  2. realthog says:

    I didn’t think this novel was flawless. . . . Overall, however, I thought this was a wonderful novel.

    I had exactly the same reaction to Walton’s Farthing: I could see the flaws but I still loved the thing, and ran around trying to browbeat friends into reading it.

    • Jenny says:

      I liked Farthing best of the trilogy, and thought it was the best-built. Half a Crown had a very troublesome ending (to me), but I thought Farthing and Ha’Penny were both wonderfully conceived and constructed. And I, too, gave them to others!

  3. jenclair says:

    I didn’t love the novel, but I loved the emphasis on books!

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, that might be what I liked best about it, as well — though there are plenty of other things to like, too.

  4. Oh, I definitely think that Wim is supposed to be — maybe not a jerk entire, but definitely not as great as Mori thinks he is. He’s her first-ever boyfriend; she’s got crush goggles on. I definitely agree with you that he comes off very VERY jerky at times, and I imagine that sometime in the future, Mori gets a bit more wise to the world and dumps him.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, that’s good to hear. This goes back, I think, to the characterization question Bibliobio brings up. I can tell Wim’s a jerk, despite (or because of) Mori’s crush-goggles, but Walton never deals with why Mori likes him anyway. It’s partly the first-boyfriend thing and partly the self-esteem thing, but of course it’s also partly daddy issues and partly abandonment problems and partly a power differential. It would have been nice to see that fleshed out a bit.

  5. Lisa says:

    I had this on my reading list & then lost track of it. Thanks for the reminder. I’m also very interested in her newest book, but our libraries don’t have it.

    • Jenny says:

      Time for ILL! I’ve only read this one and the Small Change trilogy, but I’ve enjoyed all of them, with a few criticisms.

  6. Stefanie says:

    Oh this sounds like fun! And did Mori’s reading add to your TBR pile?

    • Jenny says:

      You know, I’ve read quite a few of the things she’s read, but I was quite interested in other things. I haven’t gotten to some of the real SF classics (partly out of lack of interest) and would like to see more.

  7. Great review! I really need to get this book off its dusty shelf and finally read it!

  8. Jeanne says:

    I like your point that it feels like a myth. I loved it with an unshakeable and uncritical love.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, that I can’t do. I do have criticisms. I think a lot of what Bibliobio says above is true, especially about the lack of characterization apart from Mori, and about the very vague explanation of the way the magic works, or doesn’t, or whatever. But I thought it was such a love letter to reading, and to SF/fantasy in particular, and to the way reading finds us not-alone in a rather lonely world, that I enjoyed the hell out of it nonetheless.

  9. Heidi says:

    I had a huge issue as well (SPOILER) with the scene where her father gets drunk, crawls in bed with her and she fights him off. She basically blows it off and it is never an issue with her relationship with her Dad and it is never mentioned again. What!??

    • Jenny says:

      Do you know I completely forgot that part, because it was so thoroughly dismissed? What was that, even? Are we supposed to like Daniel, or think of him as a support system, after that? Are we supposed to think he was enchanted, or just drunk, or that she can take any kind of trauma because her sister was killed, or what? No no no. Just, that was poorly handled and weird, I totally agree.

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