This review is biased. Of course, all my reviews are biased, what else are they there for? But this one feels more biased than most. My Real Children by Jo Walton came recommended by a friend who said “if you ever feel the need to bawl your eyes out”, when I mentioned that I had planned to read something by Jo Walton.
Turns out, being forewarned is absolutely not being forearmed.
My Real Children tells the story of Patricia. Or rather, the stories of Patricia. Patricia, aged 89, is old, and confused, and in a nursing home. She’s confused about the usual things – where she put her glasses, the current date –, but also about more … unusual things, such as the names of her children. She remembers two lifetimes, separated by one simple choice she made when she was just over 20.
Telling two entire lifetimes in a bit over 300 pages is a challenge. You don’t come to this book for its poetic or flowery language – everything is told very matter-of-fact, sometimes as dry as you’d expect from a report. But this dry style works, combined with the skillfullness Jo Walton uses to zoom in and out, to decide when to skip a bunch of years in a sentence, or to give us line-by-line dialogue. I think in the whole book there were only two or three places where her decision regarding the zoom level pulled me out of the flow. Even characters mentioned only a couple of time would be recognisable and memorable instantly – and I often struggle to remember a larger cast in books. And on the side, as if by accident, we also get to see alternate history is done right: With actual, logical deviations that have far-reaching consequences. Plus discussion of emancipation and queer rights issues (the protagonist was born in 1926, after all) in a very tactful and accurate manner.
When I was half way through the book, I liked it a lot, and I felt engaged – but I didn’t love it, and I couldn’t see myself be brought to tears over it. The book (again, driven by a very dry style) then proceeded to escalate emotionally to a degree where I had some serious discussions with it about which ways forward would be acceptable. (I didn’t win all of them, and yes, tears may have been shed.) It’s not an easy book to read, and it will take something out of you emotionally, probably, but if you’re in a place to tolerate this, I’d absolutely recommend it.