Wow. Only occasionally does a book come along that really forces me to pause once I’ve read those final sentences. When I finally closed this one, I just had to sit quietly and take stock – thinking back over everything I’d read and smiling at how marvellously the story was put together. Looking back over my notes (three times the amount I normally take) this is a book that I will absolutely have to re-read. As one reviewer put it, it takes ‘What if?’ to a whole new level.
What the blurb says:
The day Mark called, Patricia Cowan’s world split in two.
The phone call.
A single word.
It is 2015 and Patricia Cowan is very old. ‘Confused today’ read the notes clipped to the end of her bed. Her childhood, her years at Oxford during the Second World War – those things are solid in her memory. Then that phone call and her memory splits in two.
She was Trish, a housewife and mother of four.
She was Pat, a successful travel writer and mother of three.
She remembers living her life as both women, so very clearly. Which memory is real – or are both just tricks of time and light?
My Real Children is the story of both of Patricia Cowan’s lives – each with its loves and losses, sorrows and triumphs, its possible consequences. It is a novel about how every life means the entire world.
Essentially, the story is about Patricia, also known variously as Pat, Patty, Patsy, Tricia and Trish. When we meet her at the start of the story she is old, in a nursing home and suffering from dementia. She is confused, but her memories of her childhood and early life remain undiminished. She knows she was born in 1926 and remembers her childhood and early life vividly.
Pat is bright and goes to study at Oxford (where she is taught by Tolkien before his fame – how cool is that?). She loses both her brother and her father in the war but retains her faith and at University this is strengthened when she becomes involved with the Christian Fellowship. There are some absolutely beautiful sentences in this novel and many can be found in her descriptions of God and nature: ‘And the war had lasted such a long time, and taken so much from her. But the sea was still here, and just like it God was still here, waiting patiently’.
All does not remain calm for long, however. Pat falls out with the Christian Fellowship over their treatment of two friends of hers who they accuse of being lesbian. In the end she concludes ‘that I can find God better alone, in nature and in the world’. She goes on to become a teacher, firstly in Penzance.
At about this time, we meet the rigid, emotionless Mark who proposes to her – in about the least romantic way anyone can ever propose to anyone. And it is at this point that the narrative (and Pat’s memories) split in two. Did she say yes, or did she say no?
The remainder of the novel from 1949, flits between the two narratives – in one, she said yes and married Mark (and therefore had to give up teaching). In the other she said no and her life took a very different route. In one her faith remains; in the other it is lost. The structure of the story reminded me at times of the film Sliding Doors, as well as of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life but both of these comparisons seem rather unfair. This is a completely unique story which completely transported me.
The ‘I do’ narrative (in which she marries Mark) made me extremely uncomfortable. I won’t go into detail as to why but it is not an easy story to read, especially in the beginning. For a little tease… ‘He not only treated her as if she were stupid, but genuinely believed she was’. That’s not to say there aren’t flashes of happiness – such as the love she has for her four children and the fact that she becomes close to her mother for the first time, but they are few and far between.
The ‘Mark’ story is made all the more uncomfortable because of its dramatic contrast with the wonderfully idyllic ‘I don’t’ narrative, in which she turns Mark down. In this version of the story Patricia falls in love with Italy, becomes financially independent, moves into her own flat and has lots of parties and friends. She publishes a series of travel books, buys a house in Florence and falls in love with a woman, Bee, who becomes the love of her life and with whom she has three children.
Jo Walton clearly knows Italy. Her descriptions are completely delicious and along with Pat and Bee, I absolutely revelled in the art, the architecture, the scenery and the food.
In both narratives, Pat’s story is interspersed with flashes of historical fact – but also fiction, which are absolutely fascinating. For example, we read of Pat struggling to get a mortgage in the 1950’s as a single woman; of her liberation from Mark and childbirth with the introduction of the contraceptive pill in 1961 but also of ‘Prince Charles and Princess Camilla’ and of couples getting married on the moon.
In one narrative we are in a world where John F. Kennedy was killed by a bomb in 1963, and in the other, transported to a world where Kennedy chose not to run in 1964 after an escalated Cuban Missile Crisis led to the nuclear obliteration of Miami and Kiev. In one, by 1985, AIDS and leukaemia could be cured. In the other, Pat loses a son to AIDS.
The novel explores issues of identity, love, death, grief, women’s liberation, motherhood, homosexuality, adultery, friendship, senility and independence to name but a few. I have absolutely no idea how Jo Walton has crammed so much in whilst still ensuring the writing remains completely believable, entirely beautiful and yet an easy read. I was with Pat every step of the way, in both narratives, and felt rather bereft when I had to say goodbye. It’s such a long, long time since a book has bought tears to my eyes.
To some extent the novel questions just how much our actions can actually change outcomes – and the way it does so is completely fascinating. It also explores the possible trade-off between personal happiness and the greater good. There are so many little overlaps and parallels between the two stories – certain characters that make an appearance in both for example, that I’m certain I’ve missed loads on a first reading.
I found this a completely fascinating, rich and enthralling read. I’m off to check out Jo Walton’s backlist so will leave you with a thought from Pat: ‘You’ve got no idea of the battles we’ve already won, especially when you’re busy looking ahead to the battles we still have to fight’. Just perfect.
Well worth the £5.99 Kindle price: My Real Children