One woman, two lives, many questions
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