Book review: My Real Children, by Jo Walton

My Real Children by Jo Walton is a novel best known for its originality. Neither straightforward historical fiction nor a recognizable fantasy novel, it’s a book with a unique concept at its core.

Here’s what the official blurb says:

‘It is 2015 and Patricia Cowan is very old. ‘Confused today’ read the notes clipped to the end of her bed. Her childhood, her years at Oxford during the Second World War – those things are solid in her memory. Then that phone call and…her memory splits in two.

She was Trish, a housewife and mother of four.My Real Children by Jo Walton is a novel best known for its originality. Neither straightforward historical fiction nor a recognizable fantasy novel, it’s book with a unique concept at its core.

She was Pat, a successful travel writer and mother of three.

She remembers living her life as both women, so very clearly. Which memory is real – or are both just tricks of time and light?’

Now, let’s start with the good things. First of all, I absolutely loved the premise, and I enjoyed reading about the two versions of Patricia’s life, which forked sharply depending on the answer she gave to one marriage proposal in her youth. Apart from her own fate, the world history in these two parallel realities also differs – while Trish the housewife experiences the twentieth century as we know it (politics-wise, at least), during the lifetime of Pat the writer the Cold War ultimately becomes a hot one.

Being a history geek myself, I also loved the author’s dedication to research, as well as her willingness to include a lot of decidedly unglamorous details of the 1950’s-1960’s: from the inability for an unmarried woman to get a mortgage to the ban on taking more than 25 pounds while travelling outside the UK.

The book was also interesting and easy to read, but, overall, it left me with a mixed feeling. I know there are readers who admire sparse, beige prose; it’s just that when it comes to the flourishes of writing, my tastes are closer to the Hilary Mantel end of the scale. Both tales were told in a kind of impersonal recitation I am more used to seeing in non-fiction biographies. I enjoyed the twists and turns of both of Patricia’s lives, but I wish it was written with more engagement.

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