Among Others: Review and interview

When I first finished Jo Walton’s to Among Others, there was this instinctive pang of hurt at being left out because when I met Walton in Tempe for World Fantasy a few years back, she didn’t tell me about the fairies.

A heartbeat later my reasoning brain is sending the “Hello, this is fiction!” memo, but there it was, that delicious (and painful) sense of my having lived in that fictional world, the reading experience was so intense: it’s the liminal existence I went to books for ever since I was a little kid.

The word “liminal” comes from the Latin limen, or threshold. Some regard artists, writers, and musicians as liminal, looking at social forms from the outside. If that’s true, maybe that’s one of the reasons why young adult literature is going through such an amazing popularity right now: writers and artists look at culture, especially (liminal) adolescent culture, from the outside.

The storyline goes something like this. Some time after the accident that claimed the life of her twin sister Morganna, Morwenna Phelps is sent to live with her father and aunts. They put her in boarding school, which she hates; reading and journal writing are her only solace. Oh yes, and magic. Armed with these three things, she slowly begins to make sense of the world as she ages toward emancipation.

The book opens with the girls doing some magic to get rid of the polluted sump of the factories. As nature reclaims the area and fairies return, the reader, trying to impose a sense of familiarity if not reality over the story, might be reminded of painful historical notes wherein polluted places are associated with beatific visions, another form of liminality.

Young adult novels are largely concerned with teen matters, and interactions with adults tend to be bounded by YA tropes. YA boarding school stories tend to follow rules set down more than a hundred years ago; though Mor attends a boarding school—one complete with a long history, and includes “Hons” among its students—her narrative is the antithesis of the boarding school story. The school and its world are not all-important. Mor is looking outside both figuratively and metaphorically.

Her journal is curiously liminal, reading most of the time like a journal (written in “mirror”), but every so often she talks to someone outside of herself: My family is huge and complex, and perfectly normal in all ways. It’s just—no. If I think about trying to explain it to somebody well-meaning who doesn’t know anything about it, I’m daunted in advance.

There is the liminal nature of magic. It is difficult to define: You can never be sure where you are with magic. And you can never be sure if you’ve really done anything or if you were just playing.

From the diffuse to the details of everyday living, magic is liminal:[At boarding school] Still, on the subject of eating, we don’t have our own plates, or our own knives and forks or cups. Like most of what we use, they’re communal, they’re handed out at random. There’s no chance for anything to become imbued, to come alive through fondness. Nothing here is aware, no chair, no cup. Nobody can get fond of anything. At home I walked through a haze of belongings that knew, at least vaguely, who they belonged to. Grampar’s chair resented anyone else sitting on it as much as he did himself.

Magic, its possibility (or probability), its nature and its dangers become a powerful thread. There are also the fairies, whose liminality is striking: I’ve always noticed how much more fairies are like plants than anything else. With people and animals you have one standard pattern: two arms, two legs, one head, a person. Or four legs and wool, a sheep. Plants and fairies, thought, there are signs that say what they are, but a tree might have a number of branches, growing out anywhere. There’s a kind of pattern to it, but one elm tree won’t look exactly like the next.

Mor is also aware of the liminality of history: The places of my childhood were linked by magical pathways . . . we gave them names but we knew unquestioningly that the real name for them was “dramroads.” I never turned that word over in my mouth and saw it for what it was: Tram road. Welsh mutates initial consonants. Actually, all languages do, but Welsh does it while your mouth is still open. Tram to dram, of course. Once there had been trams running on rails up and down those dramroads, trams full of iron or coal. So empty and leaf-stewn, used by nobody but children and fairies, they’d once been little railroads.

Finally there is Mor’s reading, which is largely (though not exclusively) science fiction and fantasy. That’s a liminal genre right there. Mor talks about the novels she reads, sometimes reassessing them as she gets older; she finds like-minded people who talk books.

As Mor gets older, she discovers her personal boundaries blurring as much as the social boundaries. How she looks at the books she reads, how she compares their incidents and paradigms with her own experience, how she finds a group at last and what it means to be inside . . . how she deals with attraction and all its invisible assumptions and demands, and then there is how she deals with evil.

I corresponded with Jo Walton, asking questions about the book. If you’d like to read the full interview, it is here. Following are two of the questions:

ME: The mythologized life seems to me a prime example of a liminal story—an example of how fantasy can resonate with the real. Here, you’ve chosen to mythologize elements of your own life, which was so effective for me that when I first finished reading, my initial reaction was, “When we met at World Fantasy in 2004, why didn’t she tell me about the fairies?”

Can you talk about why you chose this form—how this story came about?

JO: I wrote a piece on my livejournal called “The Industrial Landscape of Elfland” which was about the South Wales Valleys where I grew up, and how I saw them as a fantasy landscape when in fact they were a post-technological one, dotted with the ruins of lost industries. Some people commented on this post and said I should make it into a novel. I kept thinking “Idiots, there’s no story there, just a description of landscape and me” but one of those people was my friend Michelle Sagara, who is a writer under that name and as Michelle West, and Michelle Sagara West. Michelle isn’t an idiot, and she is a writer, so I started to ask myself whether there was a story there and if so what it was. And I realised that I could write a story that would mythologise that part of my life, and that the important things were indeed landscape and the difference between fantasy and science fiction.

I hesitated about doing it, because it’s an odd thing to do, and because it was based on things that actually happened and a character very like me. I hadn’t done anything at all like that before. It was in some ways easier and in other ways much harder. One of the very odd things is that it’s a mixture of truth and fiction and lies. I smoothed out a lot of things and simplified things, and of course made a lot of things up. Some things are the emotional truth rather than the literal truth, and some things are just story. It’s very tangled up.

Then there’s the ethical question of taking real painful things — like the death of my sister, like my mother’s mental illness – and making them magical. In sets them in a context of being meaningful, whereas in reality life is much messier and doesn’t have that kind of narrative. I agonised a lot about whether this was the kind of thing I should be doing. And I talked to my aunt about it, because she’s the living person apart from me who was most affected, she lived through all this too. She thought it was great, by the way.

I was worried about readers too — not about people who didn’t know me, for whom it would all be a story, but for people who knew me a bit, who knew I walked with a stick, who would read this and think they knew a lot more about me than they did. Even the things that were true happened a long time ago. And a lot of it is made up — not just the fairies. The book club, Wim — I never had anything like that until I was in my twenties.

There’s also a lot of other things that I put in. I’ve always wanted to write something about kids who survive the kind of magical adventures you get in stories. I’d written a short story about that, “Relentlessly Mundane”. And I thought it would be interesting to write about the way books shape people. I also always wanted to write about magic that was deniable. So a lot of things came together with this.

I know you’ve always written things in one world, Sartorias-deles, and one long history, lots of countries, but all fitting together. I think that’s fascinating. But I’ve always liked making up new worlds and moving on. I like writing lots of different things, I get bored. So I had fun with getting the magic and the fairies working seamlessly in the real world.

ME: When back when I was a kid, there was a pair of identical twins. In those days, they pretty much segregated twins, keeping them in separate classes. I don’t remember why; now I don’t think it’s as much of an issue. Anyway, my classmates and I were fascinated with these two otherwise very ordinary girls because they were twins. The first novel I wrote when I was ten was about twins. In fact, the first one I sent out, written in collaboration with another thirteen year old was also about twins, though they were not identical.

Anyway, I noticed the same fascination on the part of students when I was a teacher, and identical twins were introduced into the classroom. Did you notice this fascination, did you share it, being a part of a twin set? What is your reaction to twins in fiction?

JO: Actually, I made that up.

My sister Emma was eighteen months younger than me. We were very close. I made the characters twins because of that kind of fascination and because it was thematically right — Mori’s loss has made her feel as if she’s half a person. I also made them older than we were.

Twins in fiction are more often a plot device than anything real.

Sherwood Smith

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Among Others: Review and interview — 1 Comment

  1. Ms. Smith,

    Just finished Coronets and Steel. Quite enjoyed it, and I think my wife liked it more.

    Is the title of the book a tribute to Alec Guinness? Seems it must be, given the name of the male lead. if so, well done. Your heroine doesn’t murder anyone though. Heck, only Tony does.

    One thing I wanted to comment on: Alec comments on Jews and angels, and is completely wrong. I don’t know if his mistake was intentional, but given the dialog it didn’t seem to be.

    Jewish theologians believe in angels; they appear many times in the Torah. However, Jewish angels are automata, robotic messengers carrying out tasks for God, and are frequently quite inhuman in appearance, and are always quite single-minded and lacking in free will or higher thought. They are not prayed to, any more than you’d pray to someone’s answering machine or their car.

    What Jews to do not believe in is the Devil or demons.

    Mind you, I’ve thought the Jewish concept of angels would make for an good SF plot …