Among Others is a very personal book. It is about a teenaged girl trying to find her place in a world that doesn’t understand her and, when faced with trauma and other difficulties, seeking solace in books. I think that this either speaks to a reader or it doesn’t; it either resonates or leaves the reader uninterested.
It is also a very British book, although I doubt that you have to be British to connect to it. It made me love it even more, though.
There is more to Among Others than the lonely geek’s narrative, which by itself would probably have bored me (even though, as someone who tried to ignore friendlessness by immersing myself in Anne McCaffrey and Tamora Pierce, I identified strongly with Mor’s loneliness). Before the book’s opening, Morwenna and her twin sister Morganna faced off against their mother, Liz, a mentally ill witch who planned to wield a terrible magic spell. They won, but at great cost: Morganna was killed and Morwenna crippled. The surviving Mor used the social care system to escape her mother and wound up with her father, who abandoned their family shortly after the girls’ birth and who now sends her off to an English boarding school, Arlinghurst.
There, Mor’s life is almost normal: ostracised for being foreign (Welsh in an English school) and different and smart, unable to relate to the other girls, grappling with her sexuality, reading books to cope. But she is also coping with her grief at Morganna’s death, her decreased mobility, her loneliness – and with the lack of fairies in the un-wild land around Arlinghurst and, then, with her mother’s attempts to contact her from Wales.
Magic is a thread woven through Among Others, and it is deftly, wonderfully done, but it is not the only thread.
There is a bitter reality that runs throughout this book too. Mor laments that the strict rules of the social care system helped her escape her mother, but wouldn’t home her with the aunt who effectively raised her. No, she must go to her father, because as the closer blood-relative he is obviously the better fit despite his abandonment of her family years ago. Mor encounters unpleasant as well as well-meaning-but-foolish attitudes towards her disability, even from people she otherwise likes, and she longs to run again. Doctors make decisions about her, not with her. In a period of particular loneliness and depression, she reacts to unwanted sexual attention (which she manages to deflect) by wondering if she should be grateful that someone likes her that way.
There is grief, understated – because the narrative is in the form of Mor’s diary, and it is clear (to me, at least) that she actively tries not to write about it – but present. Sometimes it overcomes her. Sometimes she manages to put it to one side. Life goes on – but Mor never stops grieving for her twin.
There is joy in reading, specifically reading SFF, which is one of the novel’s most visible elements and will probably elicit strong reactions in readers – whether eye-rolling or love. I haven’t read many of the books discussed, or I have different opinions to Mor (Lord of the Rings is deathly dull, in my opinion, but Mor loves it), but I definitely related to the joy she finds in other worlds.
And, through all this, the magic: Mor remembering past spells, to destroy a factory or deter a creepy boy; trying to communicate with the local fairies and understanding their warnings; dealing with her mother. It is entirely possible to read the magic as mental illness and/or imagination, but I never believed that for a moment. It feels like real-world magic, mostly small-scale as far as the wider world is concerned, but potentially devastating for individuals. It fits naturally alongside the bitter reality, grief and teenaged loneliness and joy.
Not everything in Among Others works perfectly. The diary format does, as is always the case, strain reality a little bit – she has a far better memory for events than I do, let’s just say, even if we assume that she’s paraphrasing dialogue.
I was also… impressed and made a bit incredulous by the open lesbianism in the school. I went to an all-girls school (albeit not a boarding school) and it was the kind of place where no one came out, no one made subtle moves on one another as in Among Others, no one even hinted at not being interested in guys; I had my first lesbian dream there and started being interested in other girls’ bodies, but totally freaked out because NO HOMO. I didn’t kiss a girl for two years after leaving that school. While I wouldn’t say that anyone at Arlinghurst is out as we understand that term today, there is open lesbian interest among some girls and Mor is able to consider her sexuality and decide that she’s straight, rather than default to it because NO HOMO. Maybe there are schools as open as that – I hope so, because it was lovely to read – but I found it a bit difficult to believe.
I was generally skeptical of Mor’s analytical abilities, whether criticising texts or considering her own life. Granted, she’s been through a lot more than the average teenager, which tends to accelerate maturation and self-reflection. But as with her very comfortable thoughts about her sexuality, she sometimes feels like a much older, wiser person.
All that said, I loved Among Others. It beautifully makes magic a part of reality, and Mor’s reality is not always comfortable, not always kind. I wanted her to find her place in the world. Among Others may not speak to all readers, but it spoke to me.