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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 ...
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. Jo Walton's My Real Children is the tale of both of Patricia Cowan's lives...and of how every life means the entire world.
2014 Tiptree Award Winner
"My Real Children has as much in common with an Alice Munro story as it does with, say, Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle . Good novels show us a character's destiny as an expression of who they fundamentally are. What most novels do only once, My Real Children does twice."—Lev Grossman
"My Real Children starts quietly, then suddenly takes you on two roller-coaster rides at once, swooping dizzily through a double panorama and ending in a sort of super Sophie’s Choice. A daring tour de force."—Ursula K. Le Guin
"Such a wise book, about sweetness in sorrow, without any sentiment... It's easy to write a sad book, but this one uplifts and sweetens even as it tears your heart to pieces. Astounding work, even by Walton's incredibly high standards.”—Cory Doctorow
"It amazes me a little, the ease with which such a quiet tale and such spare prose managed to engage my brain, boil my blood, and— ultimately— break my heart. Thank you, Ms. Walton, for showing me how it's done."—Peter Watts
"A dizzying array of astonishments unfolding, a Chinese box of surprises. Once started, it is extraordinarily difficult to put this book down, even for dinner, even for bed."—Jane Yolen
"Jo Walton is inimitable... This book is heartbreaking and hilarious, finding profundity in the most minute personal details and individual meaning in the largest events."—Pamela Dean
"An achingly beautiful book... After you read the last page, you will never be able to see any history, yours or the world's, in quite the same way."—Susan Palwick
"Breathtakingly good! I really didn't want it to end, but I had to keep turning pages to see how it came out. A novel for grown-ups, even ones who think they 'don't like science fiction."— Ellen Kushner
"A wonderfully absorbing book...The characters are very real, the plot as complex as origami, the theme timeless. I lost sleep reading it, and dreamed about it when I did sleep." —Delia Sherman
"Lyrical and brilliant. Jo Walton takes "What If" to a new level."—Ellen Klages
"My Real Children is about ordinary lives, lives filled with love and heartbreak, parents and children, friends and ideas and books and cooking—and at the same time it's so gripping, so compulsively readable, that you can't wait to find out what happens next... A fascinating, poignant answer to the question everyone asks sooner or later: What if I hadn't made that choice? What if I'd done something differently?"—Lisa Goldstein
"In her greatest novel, George Eliot attributed the growing good of the world to the actions of ordinary people, to which Jo Walton responds in My Real Children, 'What if?'"—Sherwood Smith
Jo Walton's novel My Real Children centers on an elderly woman, Patricia Cowan, the nearly ninety-year-old resident of a nursing home in the present day, and the world — or worlds — she holds in her head. However, unlike Nan, Patty is suffering from dementia, and her memories are curiously unstable. Whereas Nan's dangerous memories might have been, admittedly, multivalent and subject to parsing, Patty's are decidedly contradictory and divergent, apparently revealing that she's led two quite different lives more or less simultaneously.
After a unified and non-bifurcated childhood, rendered by Walton with robust delicacy and sensitivity to the resonant quotidian details of life, Patricia's existence manages to follow both of Robert Frost's famous two roads simultaneously. In one continuum, she marries her somewhat cold-blooded college sweetheart, Mark, who turns out to be a sour and mean bastard. Enduring numerous pregnancies and stillbirths, Patricia is initially and for a long time forced into an entirely domestic life as a beast of burden, abandoning all her intellectual capacity.
In another timestream, she turns down Mark's proposal — the "jonbar hinge" that connects her parallel selves — and become a writer of Italian travel books, entering happily into a permanent relationship with her lesbian soulmate, Bee. The two women lead a life of rich independence in the UK and abroad, and with the aid of a sympathetic male friend, they have children together.
Walton covers Patricia's dual lives in their tapestried entirety, from her birth in 1926 and through the next nine decades, etching complexly contrasting mirrored biographies in dense and flavorful detail. Along the way, we also learn that neither continuum is our known history, as we encounter JFK's death by terrorist bombing, the nuking of Kiev and Miami and other counterfactual likelihoods.
Walton is very careful not to privilege one timestream above another. At first we tend to assume that Patricia's time with Mark is hellish, and her time with Bee idyllic. But a realistic mix of tragedies and victories soon comes to characterize both paths. And so by the final chapter, which circles back to the first, when Patricia wonders who her "real children" were, the answer has to be that any life fully invested with blood, sweat, tears and laughter must be regarded as just as real as any other.
Walton's book summons up comparisons to two other recent titles, Samuel Delany's Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, which similarly examined the full course of two lovers down the shifting currents of time; and Terry Bisson's Any Day Now, which charted an alternate twentieth century and focused on many of the same cultural revolutions.
But a third book relates even more closely. In an example of "steam-engine time," that cosmic cultural phenomenon that produces multiple examples of a category when the zeitgeist demands, Walton's book overlaps and dovetails with Kate Atkinson's Life After Life from 2013. Both seem to be intent on showing us that even a single liberated life is not enough any longer for women, who, like Whitman, now proudly declare, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."
Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award — all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, and The San Francisco Chronicle.
Reviewer: Paul Di Filippo
“Confused today,” they wrote on her notes. “Confused. Less confused. Very confused.” That last was written frequently, sometimes abbreviated by the nurses to just “VC,” which made her smile, as if she were sufficiently confused to be given a medal for it. Her name was on the notes too—just her first name, Patricia, as if in old age she were demoted to childhood, and denied both the dignity of surname and title and the familiarity of the form of her name she preferred. The notes reminded her of a school report with the little boxes and fixed categories into which it was so difficult to express the real complexity of any situation. “Spelling atrocious.” “Needs to pay attention.” “Confused today.” They seemed remote and Olympian and impossible to appeal. “But Miss!” the kids would say in more recent years. She would never have dared when she was in school, and neither would the obedient girls of her first years of teaching. “But Miss!” was a product of their growing confidence, trickle-down feminism, and she welcomed it even as it made her daily work harder. She wanted to say it now herself to the nurses who added to her notes: “But Miss! I’m only a little confused today!”
The notes hung clipped to the end of her bed. They listed her medication, the stuff for her heart she had been taking for years since the first attack. She was grateful that they remembered it for her now, the abrupt Latin syllables. She liked to check the notes from time to time, even though the staff discouraged it if they caught her at it. The notes had the date, which otherwise was hard to remember, and even the day of the week, which she so easily lost track of here, where all days were alike. She could even forget what time of year it was, going out so seldom, which she would have thought impossible. Not knowing the season really was a sign of severe confusion.
Sometimes, especially at first, she looked at the notes to see how confused she appeared to them, but often lately she forgot, and then forgot what she had forgotten to do among the constant morass of things she needed to keep track of and the endless muddle of notes reminding herself of what she had meant to do. She had found a list once that began “Make list.” VC, the attendants would have written if they had seen it; but that was long before the dementia began, when she had been still quite young, although she had not thought so at the time. She had never felt older than those years when the children were small and so demanding of her attention. She had felt it a new lease on youth when they were grown and gone, and the constant drain on her time and caring was relieved. Not that she had ever stopped caring. Even now when she saw their faces, impossibly middle-aged, she felt that same burden of unconditional loving tugging at her, their needs and problems, and her inability to keep them safe and give them what they wanted.
It was when she thought of her children that she was most truly confused. Sometimes she knew with solid certainty that she had four children, and five more stillbirths: nine times giving birth in floods of blood and pain, and of those, four surviving. At other times she knew equally well that she had two children, both born by caesarean section late in her life after she had given up hope. Two children of her body, and another, a stepchild, dearest of them all. When any of them visited she knew them, knew how many of them there were, and the other knowledge felt like a dream. She couldn’t understand how she could be so muddled. If she saw Philip she knew he was one of her three children, yet if she saw Cathy she knew she was one of her four children. She recognized them and felt that mother’s ache. She was not yet as confused as her own mother had been at last when she had not known her, had wept and fled from her and accused her of terrible crimes. She knew that time would come, when her children and grandchildren would be strangers. She had watched her mother’s decline and knew what lay ahead. In her constant struggle to keep track of her glasses and her hearing aid and her book it was this that she dreaded, the day when they came and she did not know them, when she would respond to Sammy politely as to a stranger, or worse, in horror as to an enemy.
She was glad for their sake that they didn’t have to witness it every day, as she had done. She was glad they had found her this nursing home, even if it seemed to shift around her from day to day, abruptly thrusting out new wings or folding up on itself to make a wall where yesterday there had been a corridor. She knew there was a lift, and yet when the nurses told her that was nonsense she took the stairlift as docilely as she could. She remembered her mother struggling and fighting and insisting, and let it go. When the lift was there again she wanted to tell the nurse in triumph that she had been right, but it was a different nurse. And what was more likely, after all—that it was the dementia (“VC”), or that place kept changing? They were gentle and well-meaning, she wasn’t going to ascribe their actions to malice as her mother had so easily ascribed everything. Still, if she was going to forget some things and remember others, why couldn’t she forget the anguish of her mother’s long degeneration and remember where she had put down her hearing aids?
Two of the nurses were taking her down to the podiatrist one day—she was so frail now that she needed one on each side to help her shuffle down the corridor. They stood waiting for the elusive lift, which appeared to be back in existence today. The wall by the lift was painted an institutional green, like many of the schools where she had taught. It was a color nobody chose for their home, but which any committee thought appropriate for a school or a hospital or a nursing home. Hanging on the wall was a reproduction of a painting, a field of poppies. It wasn’t Monet as she had thought on earlier casual glances; it was one of the Second Impressionist school of the Seventies. “Pamela Corey,” she said, remembering.
“No,” the male nurse said, patronizing as ever. “It’s David Hockney. Corey painted the picture of the ruins of Miami we have in the little day room.”
“I taught her,” she said.
“No, did you?” the female nurse asked. “Fancy having taught somebody famous like that, helped somebody become a real artist.”
“I taught her English, not art,” Pat said, as the lift came and they all three went in. “I do remember encouraging her to go on to the Royal Academy.” Pamela Corey had been thin and passionate in the sixth form, and torn between Oxford and painting. She remembered talking to her about safe and unsafe choices, and what one might regret.
“Somebody famous,” the female nurse repeated, breaking her train of thought.
“She wasn’t famous then,” Pat said. “Nobody is. You never know until too late. They’re just people like everyone else. Anyone you know might become famous. Or not. You don’t know which ones will make a difference or if any of them will. You might become famous yourself. You might change the world.”
“Bit late for that now,” the nurse said, laughing that little deprecating laugh that Pat always hated to hear other women use, the laugh that diminished possibilities.
“It’s not too late. You’d be amazed how much I’ve done since I was your age, how much difference I’ve made. You can do whatever you want to, make yourself whatever you want to be.”
The nurse recoiled a little from her vehemence. “Calm down now, Patricia,” the male nurse said on her other side. “You’re scaring poor Nasreen.”
She grimaced. Men always diminished her that way, and what she had been saying had been important. She turned back to the female nurse, but they were out of the lift and in a corridor she’d never seen before, a corridor with heather-twill carpet, and though she had been sure they were going to the podiatrist it was an opthalmologist who was waiting in the sunny little room. Confused, she thought. Confused again, and maybe she really was scaring the nurses. Her mother had scared her. She hated to close herself back in the box of being a good girl, to appease, to smile, to let go of the fierce caring that had been so much a part of who she was. But she didn’t want to terrify people either.
Later, back in her bedroom with a prescription for new reading glasses that the nurse had taken away safely, she tried to remember what she had been thinking about Pamela. Follow your heart, she had said, or perhaps follow your art. Of course Pamela hadn’t been famous then, and there had been nothing to mark her as destined for fame. She’d been just another girl, one of the hundreds or thousands of girls she had taught. Towards the end there had been boys too, after they went comprehensive, but it was the girls she especially remembered. Men had enough already; women were socialized not to put themselves first. She certainly had been. It was women who needed more of a hand making choices.
She had made choices. Thinking about that she felt the strange doubling, the contradictory memories, as if she had two histories that both led her to this point, this nursing home. She was confused, there was no question about that. She had lived a long life. They asked her how old she was and she said she was nearly ninety, because she couldn’t remember whether she was eighty-eight or eighty-nine, and she couldn’t remember if it was 2014 or 2015 either. She kept finding out and it kept slipping away. She was born in 1926, the year of the General Strike; she held on to that. That wasn’t doubled. Her memories of childhood were solitary and fixed, clear and single as slides thrown on a screen. It must have happened later, whatever it was that caused it. At Oxford? After? There were no slides any more. Her grandchildren showed her photographs on their phones. They lived in a different world from the world where she had grown up.
A different world. She considered that for a moment. She had never cared for science fiction, though she had friends who did. She had read a children’s book to the class once, Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes, about a girl in boarding school who woke up each day in a different time, forty years behind, changing places with another girl. She remembered they did each other’s homework, which worked well enough except when it came to memorizing poetry. She had been forced to memorize just such reams of poetry by her mother, which had come in handy later. She was never at a loss for a quotation. She had probably been accepted into Oxford on her ability to quote, though of course it was the war, and the lack of young men had made it easier for women.
She had been to Oxford. Her memories there were not confusingly doubled. Tolkien had taught her Old English. She remembered him declaiming Beowulf at nine o’clock on a Monday morning, coming into the room and putting the book down with a bang and turning to them all: “Hwaet!” He hadn’t been famous then, either. It was years before The Lord of the Rings and all the fuss. Later people had been so excited when she told them she had known him. You can never tell who’s going to be famous. And at Oxford, as Margaret Drabble had written, everyone had the excitement of thinking they might be going to be someone famous. She had never imagined that she would be. But she had wondered about her friends, and certainly Mark. Poor Mark.
The indisputable fact was: she was confused. She lost track of her thoughts. She had difficulty remembering things. People told her things and she heard them and reacted and then forgot all about them. She had forgotten that Bethany had been signed by a record label. That she was just as delighted the second time Bethany told her didn’t matter. Bethany had been crushed that she had forgotten. Worse, she had forgotten, unforgivably, that Jamie had been killed. She knew that Cathy was wounded that she could have forgotten, even though she had said that she wished she could forget herself. Cathy was so easily hurt, and she wouldn’t have hurt her for anything, especially after such a loss, but she had, unthinkingly, because her brain wouldn’t hold the memory. How much else had she forgotten and then not even remembered that she had forgotten?
Her brain couldn’t be trusted. Now she imagined that she was living in two different realities, drifting between them; but it must be her brain that was at fault, like a computer with a virus that made some sectors inaccessible and others impossible to write to. That had been Rhodri’s metaphor. Rhodri was one of the few people who would talk to her about her dementia as a problem, a problem with potential fixes and workarounds. She hadn’t seen him for too long. Perhaps he was busy. Or perhaps she had been in the other world, the world where he didn’t exist.
She picked up a book. She had given up on trying to read new books, though it broke her heart. She couldn’t find where she had put them down and she couldn’t remember what she had read so far. She could still re-read old books like old friends, though she knew that too would go; before the end her mother had forgotten how to read. For now, while she could, she read a lot of poetry, a lot of classics. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford came to her hand now, and she opened it at random to read about Miss Matty and her financial difficulties back in the time of King William. “The last gigot in England had been seen in Cranford, and seen without a smile.”
After a while she let the book drop. It had grown dark outside, and she got up and tottered over to draw the curtains. She made her way carefully, hanging onto the bed and then the wall. They didn’t like her to do it without the quad cane but she was safe enough, there wasn’t room to fall. Though she had fallen once on her way to the toilet and forgotten that she had a button to call for help. The curtains were navy blue, although she was quite sure there had been a pale green blind the last time. She leaned on the window sill, looking out at the bare branches of a sycamore moving in the breeze. The moon was half-obscured by a thin veil of cloud. Where was this place? Up on the moor? Or was it somewhere along the canal? There might be birds in the branches in the morning. She must remember to come and look. She had her binoculars somewhere. She remembered insisting on holding on to them and Philip saying gently that she wouldn’t have any use for them in the nursing home and Jinny saying in her gruff way that she might as well bring them if she wanted them. They must be here somewhere, unless that was in the other world. It would be very unfair if the binoculars were in one world and the tree were in the other.
If there were two worlds.
If there were two worlds, then what caused her to slide between them? They weren’t two times as they were for Charlotte. It was the same year, whichever year it was. It was just that things were different, things that shouldn’t have been different. She had four children, or three. There was a lift in the nursing home, or there was only a stairlift. She could remember things that couldn’t simultaneously be true. She remembered Kennedy being assassinated and she remembered him declining to run again after the Cuban missile exchange. They couldn’t both have happened, yet she remembered them both happening. Had she made a choice that could have gone two ways and thereafter had two lives? Two lives that both began in Twickenham in 1926 and both ended here in this nursing home in 2014 or 2015, whichever it was?
She shuffled back and looked at her notes, clipped to the end of the bed. It was February 5th 2015, and she was VC. That was definite, and good to know. She sat down but did not take up the book. It would be suppertime soon, she could hear the trolley moving down the corridor. They’d feed her and then it would be time for bed. This was the same whatever world she was in.
If she had made a choice—well, she knew she had. She could remember as clearly as she could remember anything. She had been in that little phone box in the corridor in The Pines and Mark had said that if she was going to marry him it would have to be now or never. And she had been startled and confused and had stood there in the smell of chalk and disinfectant and girls, and hesitated, and made the decision that changed everything in her life.
Copyright © 2014 by Jo Walton
copyright © 2003 by Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden
Posted June 13, 2014
The best book of its kind (life-switching, alternative endings of *Life after Life* and *Lucid*--both very good, but this one's slightly better) that I've seen thus far - I read it in two days and that's a rarity for me. Don't bother taking notes to track the characters as they appear, the confusion Patricia experiences in the beginning chapters makes you feel for her situation. The questions it leaves unanswered at the end of the book are the same questions that anyone faces at the end of their career/life: How did the way I lived my life affect those around me and the world at large? This book allows those questions to be asked in a new way.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 5, 2014
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