Jo Walton has again taken the mundane and made it magical.
“My Real Children” follows the life of Patricia Cowan, born in Twickenham, England in 1926. We first meet Pat as an old woman in 2015, where the daily notes the nurses leave on her chart go from “Confused today,” to simply “VC” – very confused. Not surprising – Pat’s mother had developed dementia at a fairly early age and Pat was aware that her own memory had been slipping for a very long time. But Pat has another reason to be confused, a reason the doctors and the nurses don’t know about – one that Pat herself hasn’t been able to understand.
Pat has lived two lives. Two very distinct yet concurrent lives in the memory of one physical person. She’s not sure where her life diverged into two, but she does know that the separation is not merely a personal one – the entire world has a different history in her dual memories. In one life, she was married and had birthed nine babies, only four of whom lived. In the other, she never officially married, but bore two children (both cesarean) and helped raise a third who was no less her child than if it had come from her body. But also, in one life John F. Kennedy was assassinated; in the other, he declined to run for re-election after the nuclear confrontation between the US and Russia that decimated both Miami and Kiev, and brought the world to the brink of annihilation. And then there are the situations where individuals span both lives, but in very different capacities: in one, a student; in the other, a daughter-in-law.
Yet neither one of these lives takes place in “our” world. Yes, in one of Pat’s lives JFK was assassinated, but it was determined that the crime was orchestrated by Lyndon Johnson, the discovery of which paved the way for a successful presidential bid by Bobby Kennedy. In one of Pat’s lives, the moon’s surface held an international research station; in the other it had become a strategic launch point for more than one nation’s nuclear arsenal – neither one has come to pass in our world (more’s the pity and thank the gods).
The narrative cadence of “this happened, then this happened, then this happened” does get a little tiring at times, and there are a lot of characters that move through Pat’s lives (which makes the ones that span a lifetime become wonderfully familiar) but what can you do when chronicling not one, but two 90 year old lives and still hold the story to barely over 300 pages? It’s a fascinating concept, wonderfully realized, and brought to life by a master storyteller. An entertaining and very engaging read.