Fiction Reviews

My Real Children

(2014) Jo Walton, Corsair, £8.99, pbk, 326pp, ISBN 978-1-472-11563-8


You know how it is:- ‘Was that three custard creams or four that I just ate?’ (or maybe that’s just me). Well, the starting question for Patricia Cowan, the lead character in this book, is:- do I have three children or four?

This is a Sliding Doors type novel, based around the premise that at any given point in life, depending on which choice we make, there could be at least two new time lines. In the film Sliding Doors, it is whether the main character catches a train or not; in My Real Children, the pivotal moment turns on a (not very appealing) marriage proposal in 1949.

(Sliding Doors seems to be a (late) trigger for a number of books recently – at about the same time as I was sent this book to review, my wife was given Fractured by Dani Atkins, which has a similar story-line – my wife’s review ‘Weird’ – but then she’s not into fantasy)

The intriguing part of this novel for me is that Jo Walton has chosen to create two totally new time lines. She could have stuck with ‘real history’ (I won’t go into philosophy at this point: ‘real’ as you and I have experienced it) and just inserted her characters into historical situations, Zelig (or Forest Gump)-like. Instead, she has created two stories in one, both of which lead to a hospital bed where Patricia lies, deep in dementia, and asking herself that question, ‘How many children do I have?’

There were parts of this book that I really enjoyed: in one of the time lines, Patricia becomes a writer of travel guides to Italy, and the descriptions of visits to art galleries, etc., places I have never been, drew me in.

And then there is the central story line: Patricia is a Christian attending university over the period of the Second World War, and the description of Christian Union life, and particularly her fellow Christian’s response to a (potential) lesbian in their midst, seems fairly accurate to me. From that point on, lesbianism features fairly regularly in the rest of the novel (in one of the time-lines she has a female partner). The challenging, and pleasing, thing for me is that it is Patricia in the lesbian time line who retains her Christian faith. Too often, novels turn into polemics, building straw women which the author then easily knocks down.

My main issue is the overwhelming middle-class-ness of everything. The few working-class characters (e.g. the family she stays with at Barrow) come across as stereotypes, while the misery that Patricia lives through in her loveless marriage to Mark at times just feels like one of those misery-memoirs. And those places she visits in Italy, and the ‘little house’ she has there, well … Don’t get me wrong, I love a good middle-class story: give me Anita Brookner any day, but this just grated with me.

So all-in-all, a book I enjoyed in parts – knowing that whichever time-line she follows she will end up in that hospital bed meant that you looked for clues as to how it would all tie together, some of the descriptive sections – but with this underlying grating sound in the background.

Peter Young

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