Sunday, March 11, 2012
"Among Others" by Jo Walton
Among Others is written in memoir/diary format and narrated by a fifteen-year-old girl named Morwenna. Mor has run away from her mother, who killed Morwenna's sister Morganna and disabled Morwenna after the twins tried to prevent her from becoming an evil witch. Now Mor has been placed with her father, Daniel, whom she barely knows and who sends her to an elite boarding school, Arlinghurst. There she struggles to find a group of like-minded people (her "karass") and eventually discovers them in a local science-fiction book club. Though this is the set-up, it forms little of the action of the novel.
What to say about this strange and wonderful book? First, I typically dislike the diary format in novels because it seems like a contrived plot device: the "diary" entries are eternally long and read just like a book's narrative. Though Walton occasionally succumbs to those faults (e.g. by recounting long dialogue or by telling a lengthy story exactly chronologically), overall she's very successful at capturing the feeling of a real girl's diary. Some entries are very short; others are longer. Certain plot points are brought up and never returned to; other story arcs are never completed. No where is there a big info dump about Mor's background. We learn about her family in small pieces, and, in fact, large parts of her history are never described in detail. Instead, like a "real" diary, the entries focus on the thoughts and feeling of Mor each day. Most of the entries concern Mor's discussion of the science-fiction books she's reading or of general observations of her family and friends. On a side note, though I love science-fiction, I'm not especially familiar with classic texts (the book takes place in the late '70s), and Walton's work makes me want to check-out handfuls of them.
Then there's the way in which the book addresses magic. Mor can practice magic, and she can communicate with fairies, but this is not Harry Potter magic. It's more a subtle power that connects things and is sometimes indistinguishable from non-magical, intense feelings (like the tingling when you first get close to a boy or girl you like; or the emotional resonance you feel to an object that's important to you). Mor is afraid of practicing magic, for she understands its consequences. For example, if she uses magic to make a bus arrive earlier, she's changing enormous parts of history in order to make that happen.
Mor doesn't seem reality-realistic--no child, how precocious, could read the number of science-fiction books she reads in a week. She fits the "more awesome at everything" (except math) stereotype of fantasy protagonists, and her book club is just too perfect and welcoming. But, those details rarely bothered me. The book is so subtle and its use of fantasy elements so quietly integrated that I was instantly drawn in. In the end, Among Others is more about a love of literature and a teenage girl struggling to define her world than anything else, and it addresses those issues more effectively than most contemporary YA.