One woman, two lives, many ques­tions

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Joel Boyce

WHAT if a per­son could live two lives — not a dual life, but two full, sep­a­rate and ir­rec­on­cil­able life his­to­ries? In her old age, could she look back and ask her­self which was true and which a fan­tasy? Who were her real chil­dren? This im­pos­si­ble choice is at the heart of Welsh writer Jo Wal­ton’s heart­felt and gen­uine novel. In it, nurs­ing-home res­i­dent Pa­tri­cia Cowan finds her­self re­mem­ber­ing a slew of con­tra­dic­tory events. She ei­ther ac­cepted a mar­riage pro­posal or re­jected it; quit teach­ing or had a long ed­u­ca­tional ca­reer; trav­elled widely or hardly left her small English vil­lage. Though in the early stages of de­men­tia, she is nev­er­the­less cer­tain that her mem­o­ries are quite real, if ir­rec­on­cil­able. The ba­sic premise — call it am­bigu­ous solip­sism — has a long his­tory in fairy tales and fan­tas­tic lit­er­a­ture. Lewis Car­roll’s Alice books leave open the ques­tion of whether Won­der­land has an in­de­pen­dent ex­is­tence out­side a small girl’s day­dreams, as do C.S. Lewis’s Nar­nia tales. Film buffs have long noted that To­tal Re­call can be viewed as one long fan­tasy se­quence, with Sch­warzeneg­ger’s char­ac­ter never awak­en­ing from his mem­ory im­plan­ta­tion pro­ce­dure. The plot of the film In­cep­tion re­volves ex­plic­itly on just that ques­tion, its he­roes tak­ing great pains to avoid be­com­ing un­know­ingly trapped in a dream. In tele­vi­sion, the U.K. se­ries Life on Mars has a po­lice of­fi­cer wake up in a 1970s precinct af­ter fall­ing into a coma (the idea of time-travel via head trauma in turn be­ing stolen from Mark Twain’s A Con­necti­cut Yan­kee in King Arthur’s Court). The short-lived but ac­claimed se­ries Awake was premised on a man whose life split in two af­ter a car ac­ci­dent. He would go to bed in one life, where his wife sur­vived, and wake up in an­other, where his son lived in­stead. He saw ther­a­pists in both lives, each ar­gu­ing that his other life was the false one. Wal­ton has a new twist on the idea. While Pa­tri­cia’s two lives did split at a crit­i­cal junc­ture in her early adult­hood, the two ver­sions of her­self (Tr­ish and Pat) are un­aware of each other, com­ing to­gether only af­ter the fact in an old woman’s mem­o­ries. Wal­ton treads some of the same metaphor­i­cal ground as Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 novel, For the Time Be­ing, also steeped in his­tory, choice and un­cer­tainty. Both au­thors al­lude to quan­tum physics and the Heisen­berg Un­cer­tainty Prin­ci­ple, but in the ser­vice of metaphor and emo­tion rather than as a sci­ence-fic­tional plot de­vice. Wal­ton’s novel muses on the bit­ter­sweet­ness of choice — how each de­ci­sion closes off other pos­si­bil­i­ties in our short hu­man lives — while Ozeki’s nar­ra­tive im­plies a path of least re­sis­tance, a fated end that has to be ac­tively strug­gled against. Their por­tray­als of his­tory like­wise dif­fer, from Ozeki’s un­di­vert­ible ti­tan to Wal­ton’s mer­cu­rial ser­pent. Our Real Chil­dren is pred­i­cated on the idea that his­tory is more un­pre­dictable than in­evitable. Thus, both Pa­tri­cias hear of a bomb­ing at­tempt on John F. Kennedy’s life, which is suc­cess­ful in one time­line but not the other. Sub­se­quent wars and in­ter­na­tional crises also un­fold ei­ther slightly or vastly dif­fer­ently; gov­ern­ments be­come ei­ther ever more to­tal­i­tar­ian, or the world be­comes qui­etly more peace­ful and tol­er­ant. Both out­comes seem plau­si­ble, the novel thus mak­ing the point that this past century could have been worse, but also (less fre­quently noted) bet­ter. And per­haps the same can be said for most ev­ery­day lives.

Joel Boyce is a Win­nipeg writer and teacher.

My Real Chil­dren

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