I’ve just finished reading this book, which was named one of the best SF/Fantasy books of 2011 by various people, groups and websites who know about these things and have read more widely in the genre than I have. (And which has also just been nominated for a Nebula award.)

This is a classic coming of age story, told in a series of diary entries – itself a classic device. But the book itself is fresh and distinctive, largely because of the oddness and beauty of the voice, which perfectly captures the thinking of a 15 year old who is clever, bookish, an outsider (shouldn’t this sound familiar?) sorting through a messy family situation, new school, and the confusion of dealing for the first time with unexpected sexual situations, while also reporting on the books she’s reading – largely SF. The name-checking is so frequent I wondered whether Walton actually has a teenage diary stashed away somewhere, which she used as reference material for all the books Mori, her heroine, devours.

The other thing she does with this remarkable book is make fairies believable.

I’ve joked with friends that once the publishing world is sick of vampires, werewolves and zombies, there’s going to be nowhere else to go but fairies. There is already a vast fairy industry pumping out product aimed at little girls like my two children, but how do you make them work for grown-ups? Jo Walton has succeeded. These fairies are informed by some of the slipperiness and strangeness of traditional English fairies, but they are less glamorous and tricksy. These fairies are a strange emanation of another world, which is partly the world of nature and partly a world that is Other, where the dead walk and magic is real.

Mori’s narration is so matter-of-fact and ordinary that the fairies seem more realistic for being grounded in the real world. They make sense, and the dailiness of the diary entry format, with its juxtaposition of boarding school life detail and routines, new discoveries (books and people), and the magical other world of fairies, magic and witches, and the slowly accumulating details about what happened to Mori’s twin sister before the narrative begins, makes them seem even realer and more believable.

One of the itneresting things about the way this narrative is constructed is the way that it sets its action after what most books would have as the main story. When the action begins there has been a magical confrontation with their mother, who is a witch, which ends tragically (don’t worry, that isn’t a major spoiler). If this was a more traditional fantasy novel for children, that would be the main action of this narrative, but instead, this is a different kind of novel – a YA novel, I guess – which is about how the heroine begins to construct an adult identity for herself out of her catastrophic past and some of the new discoveries she makes over the course of the book.

There is just one moment, though, which I found interestingly unsettling. Until more than halfway through the book, I had never questioned the reality of the fairies and the magic, even though Mori herself, and the people around her, are aware that Mori’s mother is not just a witch, she is mad. But this world that mori inhabits never seems delusional until a moment when her aunts are proposing that she have her ears pierced. Mori reacts violently, convinced that if she has her ears pierced, all her magic will leak out of her and she will be unable to see fairies or connect with the magical world again. Something about this particular moment, with its fear of penetration and the loss of bodily integrity, seemed crazy to me, in a way that nothing else in the narrative had, and I found myself wondering whether all her beliefs about her mother, her sister, magic and fairies, were part of a delusional system that was all in her own head. (Later, independent corroboration is delivered: they are real after all. Phew.)

Finally, if you’re looking for weird but interesting conjunctions, try reading it back to back with Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, another narrative about impoverished childhood in regional British (the north of England instead of Wales), mad mothers, and the power of fiction to console, to inspire, to offer escape and guidance into the world of adulthood.

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