In alternate history there is the concept of the jonbar point: the key turning point in history where, had things gone the other way, the present would be a very different place. The classic examples are usually war-related — if the Confederacy had won the Civil War, if Germany had won the Second World War — and frequently didactic. Rare is the alternate history that posits a better world had something else happened at that crucial moment; alternate histories are fun because they allow us to imagine how awful things might have been from the comfortable and safe vantage point of our own timeline.
Jo Walton’s My Real Children, which along with The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne just won the 2014 Tiptree Award, messes with the idea of the jonbar point, and a great many other things besides. My Real Children is Walton’s first novel since the Hugo- and Nebula-winning Among Others; like almost everything else she’s written, it’s difficult to categorize and impossible to pigeonhole. It’s a subversive novel of alternate history that challenges our understanding of cause and effect, choice, and agency; at the same time it’s a profoundly feminist novel that says a great deal about the lived experience of women in the second half of the twentieth century.
At this point I need to warn you that this review contains spoilers. While I’m at it, I should also mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that Jo’s a friend.
My Real Children opens in 2015, in a nursing home where Patricia Cowan, suffering from dementia, remembers two distinct lives that cannot both be true. In one life, she’s known as Trish, endures an unhappy marriage to Mark Anston, and raises four children. In another, she rejects Mark’s proposal; known as Pat, she writes travel guides about Italy and raises three children with Bee. Pat/Trish’s personal jonbar point is the decision whether or not to marry Mark in 1949. At that point the narrative splits. The chapters alternate between unhappy Trish and blissful Pat. Though in neither case is the misery and bliss unequivocal: Trish finds purpose through community work and Pat endures tragedy, and both suffer loss and heartbreak before the end.
As always, Walton has a keen eye for the quotidian and the everyday. In isolation the chapters are very to the point: The pace almost seems rushed. But where the novel really comes to life is in the interstices between the two narratives: the implicit comparisons and contrasts, the echoes of one life in another. (Everything is implicit: As a general rule you should read Walton very carefully, or you’ll miss something. There are no extraneous details.)
Two things become clear over the course of the novel. First, small details here and there reveal that neither Trish’s nor Pat’s reality are our own: There is no “correct” timeline in this book, thank heavens. And second, the state of the world is in direct contrast to the state of Pat/Trish. The world in which Trish has her unhappy marriage is a happier place, with world peace and understanding and a permanent lunar base. Pat’s world is harsher, with nuclear exchanges (and the resultant fallout), terrorist attacks, and a homophobic legal system that makes her relationship with Bee a daily risk. Inasmuch as Pat is happier than Trish at a personal level, the world’s difficulties intrude on that happiness time and again. Neither Pat nor Trish is an island; each is part of the main.
In his review of My Real Children for Locus, Gary K. Wolfe notes that Walton “asks us if we’d prefer a happy life in a miserable world or a miserable life in a happy world.” It’s a fascinating question for the reader — My Real Children is thought-provoking in many ways — but an academic one. For Patricia the choice is both stark and gutting: In her final days she feels that she must choose between the two worlds — collapse the waveform — and her choice has consequences.
While Pat’s happiness is tempered with moments of sadness and Trish’s misery with joy, Trish’s world is unquestionably better than Pat’s (even if Pat’s world has cures for diseases that afflict Trish’s). Must she sacrifice the relatively happy life in order to have a demonstrably better world? Is Pat’s happiness somehow responsible for the sad state of her world because something she does as Trish makes a difference? The idea flummoxes her. But among many other things, My Real Children is a quiet argument in favour of ordinary people making a difference without actually expecting to.
Alternate history can be as bloodless as a board game when it focuses on the grand at the expense of the personal. What makes My Real Children special, in the end, is its intimate portrayal of the impact of social change: the relationship between the individual and society. Pat and Trish lived in different worlds and became, in the end, different people; Pat/Trish’s decisions may have influenced the course of history, but they were each also shaped by their respective realities. The end result is a surprisingly subtle and moving work that belies its apparent simplicity, and whose questions linger in the mind long after the book is put back on the shelf.