My Real Children by Jo Walton is an engrossing read. Perhaps even an impactful one. It took hold of me and wouldn’t let me go. I don’t think it’s responsible for my bout of 2am insomnia the other night, but it sure took advantage of the situation, enticing me to stay up reading instead of trying harder to get to sleep on a work night.
A lot of stories in the past have tackled the idea of divergent timelines. It’s a great thought exercise, to take a binary decision and extrapolate how differently things would have gone if A had been chosen instead of B. In My Real Children, Patricia is an old woman struggling with dementia and remembering two very different lives, caused by one momentous decision.
Framed by single beginning and end chapters taking place in the present, we watch Patricia’s two possible lives playing in alternating chapters. Not only is her life different, but the world itself takes different turns, dealing with fascism and terrorism in one timeline and making great social and scientific strides in the other. Interestingly, the timeline where Patricia’s personal life seems better features a darker world. And so the question becomes, what is more important: personal happiness, or the greater good?
Complicating matters is the fact that in both timelines, Patricia has different children who she loves very much. This, then, is the source of the title. Who are her real children? If she commits to believing in one life, does she collapse the other timeline, “killing” her beloved children, removing her memories of them?
You might have guessed by now, this book is not a cheery romp through “what might have been?” Although she is happier in one timeline than another, she suffers joy and pain in both. At various times, My Real Children touches on verbal abuse, marital rape, child abuse, miscarriage and stillbirth, dementia, caregiving, amputation, homophobia, cancer, drugs, and AIDS. We see Patricia from childhood to potentially her final days, and her life is not an easy one in either world.
Because we get essentially two lifetimes in the course of a single average-length novel, a lot of the story is told in broad strokes. This doesn’t always work for me — I disliked both Grace of Kings and Everfair for that — but it worked here. Possibly because it maintains a close third-person relationship with Patricia as a narrator, so I still felt drawn in to the character and her life, even if I didn’t always know what was going on in her head. There’s enough dips into full scenes where we get dialog, and thoughts, and beautiful or painful moments.
This is not a book that will work for everyone. If you like your sci-fi to feel a little bit like literary fiction, and you don’t mind having a good cry now and then, you may find that you love My Real Children. However, if you’re in the mood for a bit of fun escapism, you’ll not find what you’re looking for here.