My Real Children, Jo Walton. Tor, May 2014, ISBN 9780765332653. Reviewed by Claire Humphrey.
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more perfectly chosen epigraph than John M. Ford’s “Sonnet Against Entropy” as the thematic statement for this incredibly moving novel. Ford’s poem examines the inevitability of memory loss, and commands us to speak the truth while we can. Walton’s novel takes us through the last days of Patricia, a woman suffering severe dementia, and asks us to understand what is left of her when so much has been taken away, and what truth she has left in her to speak. This much would be a powerful book on its own, but when paired with a speculative concept in which Patricia’s fate is inseparable from the fate of our world, it is breathtaking.
Patricia’s unstable, corrupted memory contains two disparate lives. In one, as Trish, she married Mark and raised four children. In the other, as Pat, she found lifelong love with Bee and raised three children. Trish barely survived, suffering years of cruelty from Mark before divorcing him and finding moderate happiness in serving her community. Pat, however, thrived, finding a home in Italy, deepening her love with Bee and writing a series of bestselling travel books. Both sets of children grew up into individuals with all the successes and challenges that implies, and Patricia loves them all, and cannot imagine that they are not both real.
The differences in her two lives go beyond her children: in Trish’s world, despite her personal misery, history has been kind, and global peace seems like a sure thing. The moon is a research station with a thriving scientific community. But in Pat’s world, global conflict has steadily increased, nuclear weapons proliferate and the moon is an arsenal with warheads aimed and ready. When Trish faces family loss, it’s the kind many readers will find familiar: addiction, a motorcycle accident. What Pat faces is a plague of incurable cancer caused by nuclear fallout, reaping many of her loved ones before their time.
Both lives have their richnesses as well as their deep sorrows. Neither life can save Patricia from the same dementia that took her mother, the threat of which overhangs the whole book. Trish copes by using Google to search for whatever she has forgotten, and the moment when she realizes her new nursing home will not allow her to go online is a loss just as poignant as the rest. Pat copes by depending on Bee, but Bee is human and frail, and cannot carry Pat forever. Patricia, either way, finds herself — herselves — clinging to a melting ice floe that grows ever smaller.
Patricia’s lives diverged at a moment of choice: marry Mark now, or lose him forever. At the end of her life, as the scattered fragments of her self converge again, does she have another choice? Is it within her power to deny either of her families? And if she does, must she choose personal misery in order to create world peace, or will she choose love and fulfillment even at the price of global conflict?
The answer is woven throughout the novel: some hints lie in the alternate histories Walton has created, some lie in Patricia’s recollections of teaching other girls and women, some lie in the things both worlds share. Most of all, I found it telling that the choice Patricia faced was thoughtlessly handed to her by a man who did not care for her. Maybe it was a false choice, and she has always had more options. And maybe mine is a wishful reading; and maybe, when I say this, the thing you’ll imagine as the best outcome will not be the same as mine. This uncertainty is part of the book’s beauty.
We cannot know which choices will bear fruit and whether that fruit will be sweet. All we can do is follow the command of the sonnet: “Say what you mean. Bear witness. Iterate.”