Sherwood Smith's Reviews > Among Others

Among Others by Jo Walton
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Jan 18, 11

bookshelves: fantasy
Read in January, 2011

When I first finished Jo Walton’s to Among Others, there was this instinctive pang of hurt at being left out because when I met Walton in Tempe for World Fantasy a few years back, she didn’t tell me about the fairies.

A heartbeat later my reasoning brain is sending the “Hello, this is fiction!” memo, but there it was, that delicious (and painful) sense of my having lived in that fictional world, the reading experience was so intense: it's the liminal existence I went to books for ever since I was a little kid.

The word "liminal" comes from the Latin limen, or threshold. For Victor Turner and a bunch of anthropologists of the latter part of the 20th Century, the liminal figure exists on the threshold of two worlds, and can partake of both. Turner and his associates studied cultural liminality—including marginalization and outsiders—and that segued into studies of the liminal periods of human existence, focusing on adolescence as a liminal state.

Some regard artists, writers, and musicians as liminal, looking at social forms from the outside. If that’s true, maybe that’s one of the reasons why young adult literature is going through such an amazing popularity right now: writers and artists look at culture, especially (liminal) adolescent culture, from the outside. There are interlocking rings of liminality here . . . .

. . . but that’s another discussion. Back to Among Others.

The storyline goes something like this. Some time after the accident that claimed the life of her twin sister Morganna, Morwenna Phelps is sent to live with her father and aunts. They put her in boarding school, which she hates; reading and journal writing are her only solace. Oh yes, and magic. Armed with these three things, she slowly begins to make sense of the world as she ages toward emancipation.

The book opens with the girls doing some magic to get rid of the polluted sump of the factories. As nature reclaims the area and fairies return, the reader, trying to impose a sense of familiarity if not reality over the story, might be reminded of painful historical notes wherein polluted places are associated with beatific visions, another form of liminality.

Like A Separate Peace and To Kill a Mockingbird, Among Others straddles that threshold between young adult and adult literature. All three view the adult world from the perspective of a young protagonist, not jut the kid world. Young adult novels are largely concerned with teen matters, and interactions with adults tend to be bounded by YA tropes. YA boarding school stories tend to follow rules set down more than a hundred years ago; though Mor attends a boarding school—one complete with a long history, and includes “Hons” among its students—her narrative is the antithesis of the boarding school story. The school and its world are not all-important. Mor is looking outside both figuratively and metaphorically.

Not only is Mor right in the middle of that liminal stage of adolescence, her very identity is liminal: she and her sister shared the nicknames “Mor” or “Mori”, and once she uses her sister’s name; she leaves Wales as Phelps but is enrolled under her father’s name, Markova; she’s liminal culturally, being Welsh in England, she’s liminal, or marginalized, as she can’t participate in games, that boarding school megalith, she reads science fiction, which not only socially marginalizes her, it enables her to view the world by comparing it to these fictional worlds, a uniquely liminal perspective.

Her journal is curiously liminal, reading most of the time like a journal (written in “mirror”), but everyone so often she talks to someone outside of herself: My family is huge and complex, and perfectly normal in all ways. It’s just—no. If I think about trying to explain it to somebody well-meaning who doesn’t know anything about it, I’m daunted in advance.

These are not the only liminal identities. Mor’s mother; the three aunts whom Mor can’t tell apart; her paternal grandfather, who had the most precarious liminal existence. By introducing us to these characters, the narrative engages the reader with the liminality of life.

There is the liminal nature of magic. It is difficult to define: You can never be sure where you are with magic. And you can never be sure if you’ve really done anything or if you were just playing.

From the diffuse to the details of everyday living, magic is liminal:[At boarding school] Still, on the subject of eating, we don’t have our own plates, or our own knives and forks or cups. Like most of what we use, they’re communal, they’re handed out at random. There’s no chance for anything to become imbued, to come alive through fondness. Nothing here is aware, no chair, no cup. Nobody can get fond of anything. At home I walked through a haze of belongings that knew, at least vaguely, who they belonged to. Grampar’s chair resented anyone else sitting on it as much as he did himself.

Magic, its possibility (or probability), its nature and its dangers become a powerful thread in the story. There are also the fairies, whose liminality is striking: I’ve always noticed how much more fairies are like plants than anything else. With people and animals you have one standard pattern: two arms, two legs, one head, a person. Or four legs and wool, a sheep. Plants and fairies, thought, there are signs that say what they are, but a tree might have a number of branches, growing out anywhere. There’s a kind of pattern to it, but one elm tree won’t look exactly like the next.

Mor is also aware of the liminality of history: The places of my childhood were linked by magical pathways . . . we gave them names but we knew unquestioningly that the real name for them was “dramroads.” I never turned that word over in my mouth and saw it for what it was: Tram road. Welsh mutates initial consonants. Actually, all languages do, but Welsh does it while your mouth is still open. Tram to dram, of course. Once there had been trams running on rails up and down those dramroads, trams full of iron or coal. So empty and leaf-stewn, used by nobody but children and fairies, they’d once been little railroads.

Finally there is Mor’s reading, which is largely (though not exclusively) science fiction and fantasy. That’s a liminal genre right there. Mor talks about the novels she reads, sometimes reassessing them as she gets older; she finds like-minded people who talk books.

Could younger people read it? You bet. They are most likely to not get any of the sf references, which mostly cover books that came out in the seventies or before, but when does that stop the smart reader? I remember encountering unfamiliar references at age twelve, when I first began exploring the adult shelves, and being stimulated to go searching for the hidden meaning. And in those days (banging cane) there was no Internet. But the library, I already knew, was filled with veins of treasure waiting to be explored.

When I said that Mor engages with the adult world, some readers might ask if that means references to adult matters. As always, I encourage adults with curious reader kids to read it first. Mor talks about such matters as sex (including a somewhat harrowing close call) with the exact same combo of pragmatism and curiosity that I remember my fellow young teens talking about it when we were safely out of earshot of adults, and the same way I’ve heard students talk when I could hear them outside the open window of my classroom. Or how my kids talk to each other, when their voices echo up the stairwell.

As Mor gets older, she discovers her personal boundaries blurring as much as the social boundaries. How she looks at the books she reads, how she compares their incidents and paradigms with her own experience, how she finds a group at last and what it means to be inside . . . how she deals with attraction and all its invisible assumptions and demands, and then there is how she deals with evil.
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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Shveta (new) - added it

Shveta Thakrar I just saw this in the bookstore and was taken by the cover, so looked at the jacket copy. On the strength of your review, I'll definitely be checking it out!

Sherwood Smith Excellent!

message 3: by Kathleen (new)

Kathleen What the others said, Sherwood. Just hoping it lives up to your wonderful review. Thanks!

Sherwood Smith Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Dylan Horrocks I read your review just after finishing the book. I loved your thought about YA lit as luminal. Will be thinking about that for a while. Thanks! Oh and a great review, by the way. And yes, Among Others is a beautiful beautiful book.

Sherwood Smith Dylan wrote: "I read your review just after finishing the book. I loved your thought about YA lit as luminal. Will be thinking about that for a while. Thanks! Oh and a great review, by the way. And yes, Among Ot..."

Thank you! :-)

After having heard Jo Walton read the opening at a recent book signing, I now want to reread it yet again.

message 7: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue Burke In some ways, I think this novel is more the story of a girl growing up than it is a fantasy novel -- which is fine, but the fantasy adds to that. I especially appreciated the way she comes to understand that magic is manipulative, and she prefers to deal with the real world, even when it's imperfect. That was a great moment in growing up.

Sherwood Smith Agreed.

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