Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) It’s 2015, and Patricia Cowan is very old. “Confused today,” read the notes clipped to the end of her bed. She forgets things she should know—what year it is, major events in the lives of her children. But she remembers things that don’t seem possible. She remembers marrying Mark and having four children. And she remembers not marrying Mark and raising three children with Bee instead. She remembers the bomb that killed President Kennedy in 1963, and she remembers Kennedy in 1964, declining to run again after the nuclear exchange that took out Miami and Kiev.
Her childhood, her years at Oxford during the Second World War—those were solid things. But after that, did she marry Mark or not? Did her friends all call her Trish, or Pat? Had she been a housewife who escaped a terrible marriage after her children were grown, or a successful travel writer with homes in Britain and Italy? And the moon outside her window: does it host a benign research station, or a command post bristling with nuclear missiles?
Two lives, two worlds, two versions of modern history. Each with their loves and losses, their sorrows and triumphs. My Real Children is the tale of both of Patricia Cowan’s lives…and of how every life means the entire world.
Thoughts: I fell in love with Walton’s work way back in early 2011, with Among Others, which quickly rose to be a book I knew I was going to reread at least once a year (that’s holding true so far). That love has endured to this day, and I kind of want to devour any of her books that I can get my hands on, especially after having my heart utterly broken by the beautiful parallel stories in My Real Children.
Walton straddles the genre lines in My Real Children, keeping balance flawlessly as she tells a set of stories that are very much contemporary, the stories of a person’s life from childhood to adulthood, with all the mundanities and excitement of regular life (birth, marriage, divorce, war, history marching on), and only in context do you really see how it’s all brilliant speculative fiction. The whole point is that Patricia is remembering 2 different lives, which diverged from each other at a single decision point, something which led to an entirely different world springing up around her. Her decision whether or not to marry Mark should, by all logic, have only influenced her own life and what happens immediately around her, things that she directly influences. But in the world where she has a happy marriage, nuclear bombs are dropped on various places after Hiroshima, different wars happen, the world develops differently, and it’s difficult to trace nuclear events to a woman who becomes a travel writer and gets romantically involved with another woman.
And yet, you can’t help but read this book and wonder about the chains of coincidence that might have led to it all. A different decision, characters in different states of mind depending on the timeline drop a word in someone’s ear, a someone who takes the idea and runs with it and that idea reaches people in power whose decisions change from what they may have done otherwise, all traced back to whether one woman agrees to marry one man. No direct causal link is ever explicitly stated, and Patricia herself wonders how it could have all happened, but I think more important is that it gets the reader thinking about the dozens, hundreds of different ways life could have gone had someone made a different decision in their lives.
The ripple effect, the butterfly effect, call it what you like, but ultimately it means that small things can have huge unintended consequences.
More than that, it all comes so wonderfully full circle. Early in the book Patricia muses that she’s known famous people before they were famous, and you’d never be able to guess who they’d become later on in their lives. And then we see, piece by piece, how Patricia’s small decision, something that by all rights shouldn’t have such consequences, might have made all the difference to the world. The circle also is complete by the ambiguous ending. After chapters of your heart breaking as you watch Patricia slowly lose her memory, from the small things to the big, her life leads her to the same place in the end and she thinks that if she had a choice as to which timeline to pick, to eliminate one or the other, she’d pick… And it breaks off. It’s never said which she picks, or if she picks, or if that thought made a difference at all. Maybe she forgot it in the next moment.
It really is heartbreaking to see Patricia lose herself as dementia takes hold. Seeing it from her perspective, her frustration with herself at forgetting things she should know, seeing her children get frustrated and angry at her for it. You get to see both sides of the coin, and it’s raw and powerful difficult to read, as it should be. It examines just how much our memories make us who we are, and how there are some things that are written so deep in our minds and hearts that they can’t be forgotten even when we wish they could be.
This is a difficult book to review. Most incredible books are. My Real Children is the kind of book that a mere review can’t do justice. It’s not just a book, not just a story, but an experience. Jo Walton is a storyteller of the highest order, able to write profound and nuanced books and cross genre lines in a way that few others can aspire to. I can’t heap enough praise on this book or its author, and nothing I say can really prepare you for reading it. Just know that it’s amazing, that it will break your heart, and it will stimulate your mind to look at the world in different ways. Walton’s powers of observation, her ability to tell a glorious intelligent story, and her ability to bring history to vivid life will forever ensure that I eagerly read whatever she writes. Fans of speculative fiction looking for something that breaks the mold, as well as fans of contemporary fiction with a twist, will likely adore My Real Children just as much as I did.