“It doesn’t matter. I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books.”
I may have to adjust my rhetoric on magical realism. One of my favorite authors, Will McIntosh, writes genre fiction that is this close to it. And now Jo Walton has blown me away with a novel that’s only flaws are a happy ending and the revelation that the fairies Morwenna Phelps sees are real. Though technically fantasy, for most of the book the proof of magic is so tenuous that it’s actually a bit of a shock when it turns out Morwenna isn’t insane.
In 1979, Mo runs away from her home in the woods to escape the fate of her twin sister, who she believes was murdered by their mother. She also believes that their mother’s a witch and that there are fairies– strange misshapen creatures that speak in their own garbled telepathic language– almost everywhere. After tracking down her remaining family, Mo is sent to boarding school, where she’s immediately ostracized for her limp. What follows is a diary of her first year at school, where she survives on the peculiarity of her personality and her fierce love of books.
It would be inaccurate to describe Mo’s obsession with science fiction and fantasy novels as a coping mechanism. As Walton describes it, Mo’s struggles aren’t about coming to terms with her sister’s death or her absent father’s alcoholic behavior. They’re about getting an adult library card and tracking down every Robert Heinlein novel. Mo is driven to read every work of science fiction and fantasy she can get her hands on, and everything else is only an obstacle in her way. For Mo, growing up isn’t about “drugs, or abusive parents, or boyfriends who push for sex, or living in Ireland.” It’s about checking out as many books as the library will allow and discovering others who share her passion.
I’ve never come across a novel that so earnestly captures the joy of reading. Mo’s love for science fiction is unapologetic and matter of fact. She’s not being dismissive when she writes, “If I have to have a book on how to overcome adversity, give me Pollyanna over Judy Blume any day, though why anyone would read any of them when the world contains all this SF is beyond me.” She’s just being honest.
Spaceships, vampires, unicorns…what’s the point of reading books without them? Why would you want to do anything else with your time but read? Mo brooks no argument, and it’s a philosophy Jo Walton depicts with confidence. And despite feeling like a novel of magical realism for the majority of its length, it’s a point of view Walton ultimately commits to.
I could take issue with the fairies being real because I preferred the sense of mystery, but when you get down to it, there are enough books out there about kids who, as Mo puts it, “start to Grow Up and Understand How the World Works.” Wouldn’t I rather read one with a witch in it?
That’s a silly question to ask.