Jo Walton's Among Others suffers from a serious identity problem. In retrospect, I'm sorry I read the dust-jacket blurb; the book advertised isn't the book sold. Among Others' cover-blurb makes it sound like a straightforward genre novel, more a Harry Potter knock-off for the chick-lit crowd than the meditative coming of age novel it actually is. And further compounding the novel's problems is its ridiculous cover, which positively squeals "squishy beach-read." Among Others isn't quite any of these.
At its heart, Among Others is a novel about being, y'know, among others, but for the first time - leaving the insular world of childhood and childhood fantasies; leaving a comfortable home environment to live somewhere profoundly alien; leaving one school for another; leaving one family for another; leaving one stage of existence for another. It's a bildungsroman, but an ambitious and delicately executed one, with a twist: the narrator can use magic. Maybe. The others aren't just terrifying aunts and hot boys; they're also fairies.
Fifteen-year-old Mor has a hell of a lot of history under her belt: her pelvis was crushed in a car accident that killed her twin sister - a car accident that may or may not have been her mother's doing. Her grandfather, the man who raised her, has been incapacitated by a stroke; she's run away, lived in a home, and has just been passed over to her father to raise. The father who ran out on her family when she was a baby. And she, too handicapped to participate in sports, is about to start at a posh, sports-obsessed boarding-school in England, across the border from her native Wales.
Mor is possibly feeling a little isolated. Fortunately, she has her taste for sci fi to keep her company. Well, that and her ability to talk to fairies.
The novel, written as a series of journal entries, makes Mor sound very much the teenager we all imagined ourselves to be but weren't. All we geeky scifi-reading weirdos recall our teen selves as being the center a maelstrom of isolation and social exclusion, defined by our enormous brains and left-of-mainstream tastes. But we were just as self-absorbed and hormone-addled and body-conscious as the people we defined ourselves against, and so Mor's insistence on ignoring her own physicality, sexuality, and group identity reads at first as bad characterization. She thinks of herself as we thought of ourselves – which, as an adult reader with a bit more perspective, can make her character seem kind of exhausting. But Walton's doing something more interesting with Mor's characterization than making her some sort of tone-deaf celebration of the geeky teenage psyche: Mor is discovering not just her identity as a teenager, but as an individual. For the first time, she's being forced to confront existence not as one-half of a whole but as a single entity. She no longer has her twin sister to use as a reflection, a sounding-board, a defense, and an ally. For the first time she has to recognize and respond to the agonies of growing up on her own. That Mor isn't always especially perceptive about her situation isn't because Walton's a bad writer - it's because she's a very good writer. Walton balances Mor's melodramatic teenage tendencies with her very real personal tragedies in such a way that, though the reader may occasionally find Mor tiring, we never find her ridiculous.
Of course, we have to take the text of the novel with a grain of salt; it is, after all, written as a series of journal entries, and therefore the objective truth of Mor's experiences is always in question. But we trust Mor, so we trust her writing to be representative not just of Mor as she sees herself, but Mor as she's seen by others, and how she responds to them. Her perceptions do change over the course of the novel; they strengthen and deepen as she matures. The book doesn't end with Mor emerging a triumphant, fully-fledged adult, but instead as a young woman well on her way to growing up.Which brings me to the magic thing.
[SPOILERS] From the novel's very beginning we know that Mor believes she can do a little magic, that she can exert some sort of control over her world with her abilities, that she can see fairies, that her mother is a powerful and evil sort of witch, and to blame for her twin's death. It's very, very easy to read Among Others as using magic as an allegory for Mor's inability to let go of her childhood fantasies and traumas - which are so closely intertwined in her mind with her memories of her sister that to lose one is to lose the other.
But Walton's doing something more subtle and much more interesting. Mor herself, about three-quarters through the novel, very loudly disdains the idea of allegory. She hates it, she explains, because it's unfair for a book not to be about what it says it's about. The power of a book isn't in its existence as a physical object, but in the ideas it contains and inspires; an allegory undercuts that power. So, Walton may be saying, don't read Among Others as an allegory for the trials of puberty - that's cheating. Among Others is exactly what it says it is: a book about a lonely teenager who can see fairies.
Because Among Others is written as first-person journal entries, however, we never have any objective confirmation that the magic Mor practices and experiences isn't just part of her fantastically complex and deep-seated coping mechanism... for the trials of puberty. A coping mechanism so deep-seated that Mor herself is unable to recognize it as such. She's writing her own history; why wouldn't she include what she believes is her ability to practice magic? The novel's climax does, at first glance, seem to proclaim that Mor can use magic; that everything she's related about her life and abilities is entirely true and real. But again, upon closer examination, the very nature of the narrative style can be used to argue both sides of the question. In the final analysis, either argument is equally valid - which, in turn, makes the novel all the more compelling.[END SPOILERS]
Ultimately, Among Others is a carefully wrought novel about the agonies of growing up and the pleasures of developing new interests and new communities, even as we leave behind what was most meaningful in our adolescences. Mor's delight in discovering science fiction, and the worlds it open up to her - book clubs, fanzines, cons, and even boys - are a pleasure to read. But it's the larger questions about identity which make it truly memorable.