Among Others – Jo Walton

I don’t really know where to start with this book. I read it, and had to put it aside for a few days to fully process it before I could even contemplate reviewing it. The book is…different. In some respects subtle might be a good word for it. 
Among Others is written as a sort of memoir, but with journal entries written by a fifteen-year-old girl in the late 70’s in England. I’m not a big fan of teenagers, nor am I a big fan of journal entries but for this one it worked. The main character is incredibly mature for a fifteen-year-old, though there were points where her youth and teenage angst did peek through the narrative; it was, by and large, kept minimal.
Walton manages to pull off something that really usually annoys me in such a way that really works for this book without being annoying. The character has obvious secrets. These secrets end up being incredibly important to character development and background, but Walton doesn’t reveal this information all in one lump. Instead it’s hinted at and slowly revealed throughout the narrative like pieces of a puzzle. It isn’t until the last fourth of the book that the character actually openly talks about all of the events in her journal which lead her to that point in her life. While, in retrospect, I realize that the author does lead the reader along by doing this (which is what usually annoys me), she does it in such a classy, subtle way that it doesn’t bother me in this book. Instead, it seems almost like a benefit to the story. If all had been revealed in the beginning the book would have been far less exciting and there would have been nearly no reason for me to read it.
Walton’s writing is fluid and almost lyrical. She’s amazingly descriptive to the point where the world seems to leap off the pages and wrap around the reader. If I can’t believe that a fifteen-year-old would actually write like that, I could also comfortably say that I probably would never read a book a fifteen-year-old had written so it works and it’s a blessing to the book as a whole.
I almost felt like a voyeur while reading Among Others. There are aspects of fantasy which make this book an urban fantasy, but by and large most of the book is spent reading about a gawky fifteen-year-old girl as she tries to heal from a traumatic past and figure out her place in the world. There were parts of the book which seemed so realistically personal that I felt awkward reading the passages. Most of the book I was wondering what the point was besides a fascination with the character’s life and her endless diatribe of fantastic books which I have, in turn, added to my pile of books I must read (Thanks, Jo Walton, for plumping up my to-be-read list).
Among Others isn’t an action packed book. It’s more of a subtle character study. In truth, there isn’t a lot that happens here, but Walton’s writing and the voyeur aspect I mentioned above work well together to insure that most readers (who don’t mind slower paced, more subtle books) will find themselves sucked into the story and unable to leave it until the ending, which cleanly leads me to my main complaint.
The back of the book discusses a reckoning the main character will have with her mother, but in truth this reckoning was fairly anticlimactic, short and almost unnecessary to the overall plot. I actually felt, when I read it, that it was incredibly out of place in the book. It seemed to break the overall flow of Among Others in a way that bothered me. It’s like floating down a calm river, taking in the scenery and all the sudden you hit a bunch of pointless rapids. It does add some action to the book, and it is, I guess, important to the plot but not absolutely necessary. 
Another minor complaint I had was with the narrative at certain points. The character remains almost impossibly calm during much of it. If something catastrophic happens, she begins the diary entry in the same way she begins it if the day was absolutely terrible. It doesn’t really ring true to human nature, but this is a book and I can forgive that.
This is also an aside for those United States readers who may be as ignorant regarding these details as I am. This book does, at some points, go rather in depth regarding the school system in the UK, which made next to no sense to me. I skimmed those parts because honestly, fourth form, upper fifth whatever made about as much sense to me as reading a book written in Japanese. The character is fifteen, and during those parts where she’s talking about forms and A and O levels and whatever else she talks about, I had to just remind myself that “she’s fifteen, which means she’d be in 9th or 10th grade” over and over again.
Also, the beginning of the book does slightly become bogged down with excessive details regarding the character’s family history, aunts and uncles. While it is interesting, it has very minor and incredibly subtle importance to the overall story and can easily be skipped. Some readers will enjoy the background given; some (like me) might find it a moderately annoying speed bump in the overall flow of events. Regardless, the story does move on after some of those hiccups at the start of the book.
Among Others was oddly delightful to read. It’s not a book that would usually connect with me, so enjoying it was quite a surprise. Walton’s writing is lyrical, descriptive and flowing, which makes reading about the life of a fifteen-year-old girl a voyeuristic joy. This is made easier with a compelling  character who is easy to care about and relate to through her raw emotion and growing pains. If the epic reckoning discussed on the back didn’t seem like an absolutely necessary addition to the book and some points of the narrative didn’t exactly seem logical to the tone of events being discussed, it’s easy to overlook. This book is amazingly character driven and is, probably, the first book that can appeal to both young adult and adult readers that didn’t annoy me with its young adult qualities. In closing I will say, if you read Elfland by Freda Warrington and enjoyed it, you’ll probably enjoy Among Others.
4/5 stars
P.S. Thanks to Tor for sending me an ARC of this book, which will be on shelves in January 18, 2011.