Jo Walton has carved out a very nice niche of deniably speculative fiction, in which supernatural elements are so lightly present that you could blink and miss them. Among Others caps off a full book of uncertainty about the reality of magic (by the reader — Mori believes it all along) with a legitimately otherworld fight that puts paid to any doubts you might have had. My Real Children (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) goes even lighter on the magic; when Patricia makes her decision at the end, she might as easily be senile as brave.
Patricia Cowan is very, very old, and she can no longer trust her memory. Or rather, her memories, for she seems to have two sets of them. In one, she marries a cold, intellectual man named Mark and has four children. In another she refuses Mark’s proposal of marriage, falls in love with a woman called Bee, and has three children. In the world she shares with Bee, nations have dropped numerous nuclear bombs, beginning with the Cuban Missile Crisis; in the one with Mark, the fate of nations remains rather more peaceable. But which is true? (Or are they both?)
Blah blah inevitable comparisons to Life after Life, except that in My Real Children, Patricia doesn’t get multiple outcomes the way Ursula does. She gets one: Senility, and nurses that come to write “Confused” or “Very Confused” on the chart at the end of her bed. And between making one choice — to marry Mark, or not to marry him — and ending her days in an old-folks home, she seems to have lived two separate lives, one mainly happy and one largely sad. Here’s the Mark-marrying life:
That autumn a publisher bought Mark’s book, so clearly it was not Causaubon’s Key to All Mythologies after all. That night Mark visited Tricia’s bedroom after a bath but without any wine. The sexual act seemed to be over faster, which she approved, and he did not apologize afterwards. She did not become pregnant, nor did she the month after, but by February she could not keep food down and she knew she was in for it again.
And the life with Bee:
Pat began researching for the Rome [guide]book immediately after they moved. It took her all of both summers to complete. Going to Rome with Bee did soften her memories of going there brokenhearteed with Marjorie, and by the end she felt she loved Rome almost as much as Venice, though never as much as Florence. “Rome has all these layers, all this history folded over almost stratigraphically,” she said to Bee. “Florence is all of one piece, and that’s what I love about it. It all fits together so perfectly.”
And that’s the whole book: the many many small things that go to build a life. The times of sadness are quiet and lovely, as are the times of joy, in both of the storylines. My Real Children is the story of two lives, two ways a person could turn out, and while one is happier in many ways than the other, Walton doesn’t detract from the importance of the sadder one. Tricia’s four children with Mark are as significant as the three she has with Bee, and their lives — and Tricia’s — matter just as much.