When Morwena arrives in England, she is nearly broken. Her twin sister is dead while she depends on a second-hand cane to walk. She has escaped her mad mother, who is also a witch, only to throw herself on the mercy of a father she has never known, in a place that will never be home. She misses Wales, with its fairies and secret paths, even after the nightmare she experienced there. In short order her father’s three sisters pack her off to a snooty English boarding school where she is outcast for having a limp, liking to read, and being Welsh. And here begins her journey to cope with what she’s lost, and slowly put the pieces of her life back together.
Mor tells her story via near-daily diary entries, over the course of most of a school year, with occasional flashbacks. We only slowly learn the details of what happened before the novel’s opening. Initially, we know that Mor and her sister, also Mor, managed to foil their mother’s dark plans but only at the cost of one of their lives. As the survivor, our Mor has the more difficult task: to continue on, to keep on living. She knows Tolkien would understand. Remember the “Scouring of the Shire”? He obviously knew about what comes after the final battle, about coping with life after saving the world, with surviving but losing everything else.
Among Others is very firmly rooted to a particular place and time – England (and Wales), in the autumn of 1979 – and to read this book is to be transported there. In fact, the book’s sense of reality is so strong that it’s difficult to figure out whether the magic and fairies Mor takes for granted are to be read as really existing or if Walton is employing the device of the unreliable narrator. Truthfully, Walton’s (presumably) accurate rendering of post-industrial Wales is one of factory pollution and semi-urban blight, and her portrait of the ’70s era British private school system is just about the least magical place you can imagine.
And since her conception of magic is something that is completely immeasurable (it may not work at all, or the thing you wanted to happen may occur, but you can never be sure if the magic caused it or it would have happened anyway), there’s a lot of ambiguity as to whether we’re actually reading a fantasy story or a very sad tale about a girl who imagines fairies and mistakenly believes that dropping a flower into a pool releases a spell that will change the world. I don’t usually like the meaning of a story to be so open to interpretation, but that’s entirely personal preference.
The real draw of the novel is Mor’s compelling voice. Ultimately, this is a coming-of-age story for a type of person many of us may relate to. While other girls at school worry about make-up and the boy of the week, Mor hangs out at libraries and bookshops, avidly reading all the science fiction and fantasy she can get her hands on. Books are her haven. Being an outsider seems inevitable, but little by little, Mor discovers that there is a place in the world for people like her, that like-minded people do exist.
Depending on how you read it, the totems and protection magic she uses to ward off her mother’s long tendrils may represent the power of books to serve as a shelter against an emotionally unstable childhood (and particularly an abusive parent). The ability to see fairies may represent either the sense of wonder that some of us lose, or the voracious curiosity that some of us allow to atrophy.
Walton’s knowledge and love of SF comes through in every page, and I suspect that Le Guin, Silverberg, and Heinlein also served as life-preservers during her own teen years. Mor’s regular musings on what she is reading make this book both a story about surviving life as a teen and a loving testament to the written works that make this possible.
I had some nitpicks. I thought the story started to drag a bit during the last third or so, when I found myself asking, “but is anything going to actually happen?” Plotwise, the pacing was slow, and the conclusion was somewhat anti-climactic.
But when it comes down to it, this was one of the more readable books I’ve read in some time. I found I could pick it up and immediately fall into Mor’s world, even if I could only spare 10 minutes at a time. And the last line is absolutely brill. This is a book for anyone whose best friends have ever been fictional characters.