Winner of the 2011 Nebula Award for Best Novel
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It has been a long term tenet of mine that within every one of us lies a story. Or, as author Neil Gaiman states in his graphic novel, The Sandman, “Everybody has a secret world inside of them. All of the people of the world, I mean everybody. No matter how dull and boring they are on the outside, inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds.”
This is, to me, the foundation on which Jo Walton’s wonderful Nebula and Hugo award winning book Among Others is built. An otherwise unremarkable seeming girl is found to have, as evidenced by her journal, a life that is equal parts mundane and fantastic; she is both achingly real and indelibly touched by magic.
Morwenna “Mori” Phelps is 15 years old when she starts a journal on September 5, 1979. She has been uprooted from her extended family in the verdant Welsh Valleys, and made to live with a father she has never known, in an English household he manages for his three spinster sisters near Shrewsbury. But not for long – the day after her arrival at “Old Hall,” she is shipped off to Arlinghurst, a local girls’ school “in the country” that the sisters had attended in their youth. (“They want to get rid of me,” Mori writes in the first page of her journal, “Sending me off to boarding school would do nicely, that way they can keep on pretending I didn’t exist at all.”)
At Arlinghurst, Mori is immediately ostracized. Not only is she unknown (most of the girls had been attending Arlinghurst together for years), but her Welsh accent marks her as an “outlander barbarian.” She also does not participate in games (athletics) – a very important part of boarding school life – nor does she care about house points or boys; rather, she is intelligent, a loner, and an avid reader.
Sounds like a pretty typical coming-of-age story, right? Well, it’s not. The reason why Mori was sent to stay with a father she had never seen is that she had run away from her mother. Not for the usual mommy-issues: Mori’s mother is a witch and was trying to do “huge magic, to get power” when Mori and her twin sister Mor were recruited by the fairies who live in the hills and the vales to stop her. But that night, although successful in ruining their mother’s plans, Mor was killed and Mori woke up in the hospital with a mangled leg that would make her a cripple for life. Rather than return to the woman who had taken so much from her, she ran away so as to involve Child Services and be out of her mother’s control forever.
Sounds pretty fantastic, right? Well, it’s not. The unfolding of this story is actually very practical, very understated. The magic that runs through Mori’s life is not that of potions and smoke and wands, but of alder leaves and aster flowers and connections between objects. The fairies are there, but are not often seen, less often heard, and rarely understood. They are usually glimpsed out of the corner of the eye unless you know where and how to look, (or unless you are very young), and not at all if you don’t believe.
So what kind of book is this? A coming of age story? A magical romp through adolescence? It’s neither and a bit of both. According to Mori herself:
Think of this as a memoir. Think of it as one of those memoirs that’s later discredited to everyone’s horror because the writer lied and is revealed to be a different colour, gender, class and creed from the way they’d make everybody think. I have the opposite problem. I have to keep fighting to stop making myself sound more normal. Fiction’s nice. Fiction lets you select and simplify. This isn’t a nice story, and this isn’t an easy story. But it is a story about fairies, so feel free to think of it as a fairy story. It’s not like you’d believe it anyway.
If that isn’t carrying a secret life inside you, I’m not sure what is.
This memoir – this journal – takes place between September 1979 and February 1980. It carries us through Mori’s first months at Arlinghurst, the growth of her relationship, (for better and worse), with her father and his family, and her search for a karass, (a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, a term coined by Kurt Vonnegut). It’s her thoughts and feelings and musings. It’s also a testament to those things that mean a lot to her – and at the top of that list is science fiction, fantasy, (and to a lesser extent, historical fiction).
A significant amount of Mori’s journal is given to discussions of various sci fi/fantasy works, personalities, philosophies, ideas and ideals, and wonderings of why life can’t be or is so much like the works of Tolkien, Donaldson, Heinlein, Le Guin, Asimov, Lewis, Zelazny, etc. Some reviewers believe that the emphasis on speculative literature is somewhat off-putting for the reader, but I disagree. When reading any work of fiction, one must have some degree of acceptance of otherness, a willing suspension of personal belief, as it were. If fairies are fair game, then why can’t a literary genre be used in creating an intellectual environment for a girl who lives so much of her life inside her own mind? (“There are some awful things in the world, it’s true, but there are also some great books.”) The point is that this is who Mori is, not that everyone is able to equally and expertly participate in every discussion or understand any author referenced in the journal.
To me, Mori’s love of science fiction and fantasy underscores her sensitivity towards the “other” in otherworldliness. Her very upbringing, the landscape that she grew up in, the places that shaped her, the language that fills the maternal home, all carry an understated familiarity with magic. Not just fantastical magic, but that which exists in the fabric of everyday life:
I thought, sitting there, that everything is magic. Using things connects them to you, being in the world connects you to the world, the sun streams down magic and people and animals and plants grown from sunlight and the world turns and everything is magic. Fairies are more in the magic than the world, and people are more in the world than in the magic. Maybe fairies, the ones that aren’t lost dead people, are concentrations, personifications, of the magic? And God? God is in everything, moving through everything, is the pattern that everything makes, moving. That’s why messing with magic so often becomes evil, because it’s going against the pattern. I could almost see the pattern as the sun and clouds succeeded each other over the hills and I held the pain a little bit away, where it didn’t hurt me.
This is what makes Among Others so wonderful – that magic so effortlessly and yet so meaningfully manifests in the life of this ordinary, extraordinary girl who sees fairies and who battles her mother in order to save the world and losses a sister and part of herself in the process, and yet who acknowledges that the superior airs of her classmates bother her, who wonders just why a cute boy may be attracted to her, (she fears it may be because of magic, and not because of her), and who gets excited when she finds a brand new Heinlein on a shelf of the local bookstore.
Some reviewers worry that, because we only see events through Mori’s eyes, and since we only have her words and her point of view, that we are perhaps not seeing a true accounting of what occurs. There have even been allegations that Mori’s sister and mother and the fairies and it all are made up, are part of Mori’s imagination. I simply can’t agree with those assessments. While we indeed are seeing the world through Mori’s eyes and yes, that’s a single point of view, I see this as more a strength than a detraction, for it is her “secret world” that we are glimpsing – not secret because beyond her it would not exist, but secret in the sense that it is hidden and unknown until she shares it with us. And once she has, magic seems a bit more possible after all… and that turns out to be (as Mori would say) “really brill.”