Life, and fiction, is peppered with the ‘what if?’. Every decision we make has the potential of leading us in different directions. The film Sliding Doors is a good example of how a life can be radically different if one path is taken over another. Jo Walton’s My Real Children also takes a hinge point in the life of her protagonist, Patricia Cowen. In this case, the ‘what if’ point is a phone call from her boyfriend. He is finishing his degree at Oxford while, she having already graduated, is teaching in Cornwall. He tells her that if they are to marry, it must be now or never. From this point, the two narratives of her live diverge.
From the start of the novel, the reader is aware that in 2015, Patricia is an elderly lady living in a home and suffering from dementia. The narrative of her two possible lives is told in alternating chapters from 1949 when she has to make the choice. In one life she finds she has made a mistake and it takes many years of a miserable existence before she has the courage to change her situation, in the other she eventually finds fulfilment. Both narratives revolve around children though the life-styles are very different. During the various changes in her circumstances, she alters her name. She is Patsy as a child, at University it is Patty but later she is Tricia, Trish, Pat, the name fitting the person she is. She grows into whichever name she is using, showing the importance of names not only in fiction but in life. If parents choose the wrong name for their offspring it can vastly influence how others see them and can be a factor deciding the direction of their life.
Although both the alternatives are well grounded in reality, especially at the start, as they progress there are deviations from the time line that reader is familiar with. Since this is told from the aspect of a woman with memory problems, the question raised is not only which of these narratives is the true one, or if neither of them are. Is Patricia fantasising both alternatives or just misremembering the facts? Is she mixing up reality with what she would have liked to have happen? Only at the start and end of the novel does the story focus on the confused woman approaching not only the end of her life but the total failure of memory but she is a very real presence throughout. The only person who can know what is in someone’s mind is the possessor of that mind. When memory begins to fail, do we fill in the gaps with what might have happened?
My Real Children asks questions mostly about memory and expectation. Many authors complain that the characters that they invent become, at times, more real than the living people around them. People who lose touch with reality, and that includes dementia sufferers, conjure fantasies to replace what they have lost. For Patricia, both narratives are true, and false. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what is true, and which are her real children. This is a beautifully and sensitively written book about a place that some of us may inhabit in future years. This is one of the best books I have read for a long time.