There are some awful things in the world, it’s true, but there are also some great books.Among Others is written in the form of the diary of fifteen-year-old Morwenna Phelps. It’s set in 1979 and 1980, not long after an accident that killed Morwenna’s twin sister Morganna and left her with a disabled leg. Mori grew up in South Wales, but after her sister’s death she moved to England to live with the father she had never met – mostly because that meant she could escape her mother. She ends up being sent to boarding school by her father’s sisters, and spends a year discovering interlibrary loans, book clubs, and the solace that can be found in intellectual community – besides trying to learn how to live with the past, that is. This is only one level of Among Others: in addition to this, there’s the fact that Mori can do magic, that her mother is a witch, and that the accident that forever changed her life was the result of an attempt to put a stop to her plans.
Among Others is not the story of two teenagers trying to defeat a sorceress and save the world by the means of magic; it’s the story of what happens after that. I should start by saying that I don’t like the idea of reading fantasy as a collection of symbols that need to be decoded. I mean, at one level that’s how fantasy works, but as Ursula Le Guin has explained so well, the reason why it’s fantasy is exactly because there is no one-to-one correspondence between these symbols and imagery and meanings that could be expressed in plain language. There are emotional truths in these stories beyond what we know how to articulate. So when I say that the emotional truths in Among Others matter more than the fantasy elements per se, I am by no means dismissing the latter or saying that this distinguishes it from “ordinary” fantasy. The truths we have in this particular story have to do with growing up, with finding somewhere where you belong, with surviving unspeakable grief, and with turning to books not to escape real live, but to learn how to make sense of it.
This is a very quiet and understated novel, and it’s perhaps more about reading than about anything else. It’s about trying to find out about books you’ll love before the age of the Internet (I hadn’t yet been born at the time when the book is set, but I’m still old enough that I can relate to Mori’s appreciation for editions that listed what else the author had written – because really, how else would you find out back then?); it’s about encountering the books that will shape you into the person you are to become for the very first time; it’s about the ideas these books contain – how they find their way into your life and change how you see the world. Cory Doctorow has said it best:
For though Morwenna’s life has much that makes her unhappy, from her family to her pariah status to her gamey leg, these books are not an escape for her. She dives into them, certainly, and goes away from the world, but she find in them a whole cognitive and philosophical toolkit for unpicking the world, making sense of its inexplicable moving parts, from people to institutions. This isn’t escapism, it’s discovery.Which brings me to my favourite thing about Among Others: the fact that it’s such a completely candid account of a teen girl’s intellectual growth. It’s rare to find a book that captures this process so well, probably due to our tendency to edit our memories as we grow and change and to attempt to harmonise them with the person we later became. These attempts to to gloss over things or rewrite history are not necessarily a result of dishonesty, but rather of the very human tendency to convince ourselves that the things, ideas and principles that matter the most to us have been around for much longer than they actually have. Once something becomes a part of us, it’s easy to lose sight of a time when this wasn’t so.
Among Others, however, does manage to resist this tendency. For example, Mori writes about going to see a production of The Tempest with her school and not being happy with the fact that Prospero was cast as a woman. She says:
I suppose the way it didn’t really work was in Prospero and Miranda’s relationship. It didn’t work as mother and daughter to me, at least, not and keep Prospero sympathetic. I read him as a man who is remote, and good to bother with a toddler, but a woman like that would be too unnatural for sympathy. Which isn’t to say I think women should be stuck with childrearing, but—how interesting that what comes across as doing the best he could in a man looks like neglect in a woman.This may be a pretty cringe-worthy thing to say, but goodness knows I thought much worse when I was fifteen. And what’s so interesting about this passage is the fact that Mori is starting to notice that there’s a double-standard at work here. She responds the way all of us have been socialised to respond to neglectful mothers versus neglectful fathers, but then she thinks, “Wait a minute”. And she does so in a way that feels entirely realistic. All through the book, her moments of cluelessness, ignorance or naivety are managed just as effectively as this. Her struggles with ideas are never heavy-handed; you don’t feel the author as a puppet master in the background pulling the strings. On the contrary, Mori’s voice feels absolutely genuine. And as a result, readers can smile when they see her refer to James Tiptree Jr. as a he, or when she says she’ll save I Capture the Castle for when she’s in the mood for a good medieval siege – but we smile with real fondness, rather than patronisingly or with the urge to pat her on the head.
There’s a plotline in Among Others I would love to discuss with someone – with someone who’s read the book, as unfortunately there isn’t much that can be said about it without spoilers. It has to do with Wim, a boy Mori meets in her sci-fi book club and feels attracted to. I suppose it’s an illustration of the double edge of the belief that Woman as Victim and Man as Sexual Predator is the “natural” way of things. Until the world changes radically, I’ll always believe that women have a lot more to lose in terms of reputation, and that they’re punished much more harshly for what are perceived as sexual misdemeanours than men will ever be. But inequality, power imbalances, and the world’s refusal to believe that girls can also have sexual agency also have their repercussions for boys. It’s a thorny issue, though, and a difficult one to convey well. The way it has been portrayed here can perhaps be read in a way that makes me quite uncomfortable, which is why I’d love to have someone to talk about it with.
I can’t resist finishing this post with a photo of the dedication page of Among Others, which put a big smile on my librarian-in-training face. At a time when the belief that books and libraries are nonessential is becoming frighteningly widespread, this is a very opportune story indeed.
I sat on the bench by the willows and at my honey bun and read Triton. There are some awful things in the world, it’s true, but there are also some great books. When I grow up I would like to write something that someone could read sitting on a bench on a day that isn’t all that warm and they could sit reading it and totally forget where they were or what time it was so that they were more inside the book than inside their own head. I’d like to write like Delany or Heinlein or Le Guin.They read it too:
Tolkien understood about the things that happen after the end. Because this is after the end, this is all the Scouring of the Shire, this is figuring out how to live in the time that wasn’t supposed to happen after the glorious last stand. I saved the world, or I think I did, and look, the world is still here, with sunsets and interlibrary loans. And it doesn’t care about me any more than the Shire cared about Frodo.
Stainless Steel Droppings
And if you have a few moments to spare, Jo Walton’s post for John Scalzi’s Big Idea feature is well worth reading.