Can the humble romantic choices of one woman alter the course of global politics? That's the question at the heart of Jo Walton's fascinating alternate history character study, My Real Children. The book is a masterpiece of personal and political worldbuilding.
Like Walton's last novel, the award-winning Among Others, My Real Children can easily be read as magic realism. The story is told by a woman succumbing to dementia in an elder care facility, who has has a hard time remembering what she's just read — but suddenly begins to remember that she actually lived two distinct lives, in two different versions of England, which both somehow ended with a slide into senility. Her lives diverged shortly after World War II, when a young man she barely knew while at university asks her to marry him. One version of her says yes, and the other says no.
Though the premise sounds slightly gimmicky, Walton unfurls a story of two women that is so vivid and believable that you'll be sucked in and won't be able to let go. Their stories are interspersed over most of the twentieth century, and part of the twenty-first, as they lead dramatically different lives. Both are named Patricia, but wind up going by different nicknames. Tricia becomes a repressed housewife of four, whose husband belittles her and neglects the children. Meanwhile, Pat goes to Italy to get over her failed engagement, falls in love with Florence, and begins attending local groups devoted to birdwatching, gardening — and gay rights. As Tricia's marriage crumbles, Pat realizes that her interest in homosexuality isn't just academic. She's fallen in love with a young scientist named Bee.
Pat and Bee build an alternative family with a photographer friend who is willing to help them have children, while Tricia sneaks out of the house when her husband is at work to become a political activist. Tricia goes through a divorce, while Pat becomes the celebrated author of a series of travel books about Italy. Because of their early choices, these women have had very different opportunities in their lives, but they share two things in common: They are both passionately engaged with the world, and they both love their children very much.
What's brilliant here is the careful way Walton explores how Pat and Tricia's decisions shape their children' lives, as well as the lives of people around them. Some of Tricia's children have troubled relationships the way Tricia and her ex-husband did, while Pat's children are open to having alternative families that cross national boundaries and move beyond monogamy. It's tempting to say that Tricia's life is the more tragic of the two, but as the women age we realize that their tradeoffs lead to different kinds of joy.
Tricia's involvement with local politics deeply affects her city, and possibly even the world. For in Tricia's world, President Kennedy was never shot, and nuclear disarmament policies have ushered in a long era of peace, expanded civil liberties, and space colonization. But in Pat's world, limited nuclear strikes have seeded the world with radioactive particles and authoritarian governments have turned Pat and Bee's lives into a nightmare of identification papers — and early deaths among their loved ones from radiation-induced cancers and terrorist bombings. We're asked to weigh the two women's fates in our minds, wondering whether domestic bliss in an authoritarian regime is better than personal unhappiness in a future where humanity isn't threatened by war.
Lurking beneath these overlapping memories is the aged Patricia's slowly waning sanity. She's forgetting crucial parts of her life, even as she's remembering lives she isn't sure she ever lived. One way to read this novel is as the compensatory fantasy of a brilliant woman who is losing her memories to Alzheimers. To make up for her lost memories, she may be inventing new ones.
Ultimately, however, this novel is a complicated, nuanced mediation on the question of how the personal and political intertwine to create a single life. We get the sense that Tricia's greater political freedoms have afforded her a form of happiness that Pat can never have — Tricia makes a family out of her political allies, and sends her son's family off to live on the Moon. Pat may have the love of a wife and children with healthier relationships, but her government has outlawed homosexuality and she and Bee are under occasional, uncomfortable surveillance from social workers.
Would you rather have a slightly sad life in a happy world, or a happy life in a world on the brink of disaster? Perhaps the most challenging part of My Real Children is trying to figure out of these two possibilities are equivalent — or if one is the better place, where you'd want your real children to live.
With its finely-observed treatment of human interpersonal relationships, this novel is as good as Walton's previous alternate historical masterworks Farthing and Tooth and Claw. I know of few other authors who are so deft at evoking the complicated relationship between international politics and domestic dysfunction. No matter how outlandish the social context she's built, however, Walton's true strength lies in creating characters you come to know intimately — and whose lives you care about intensely, especially when they fall apart. You may find yourself in tears by the end of My Real Children, but you won't regret a single second you spend engrossed in its pages.