Or What You Will. Jo Walton.

Walton, Jo. Or What You Will. Tom Doherty, New York, 2020. F;10/20.

Almost 30 years ago I somehow convinced my wife and three young kids to spend a year with me in the south of France. It changed all of us.

One of the events was a several-days’ trip to Florence Italy, where we toured the galleries (Uffizi especially) set for visual dazzlement by the old epiphenomenal glory of the Italian Renaissance, only to have it ruined by four (a friend of our daughter was with us) 6 to 12-year-olds wanting gelato and lets get out of this boring old museum. Our VW camper van was stopped by the police and impounded because of an out-of-date license. Once we were all safely back in Aix poor me had to travel back by train to the deeply magical city to recover the Eurovan. The bureaucratic tangle took several days to unravel: galleries, numinous streets and squares, exquisite unaffected restaurants, nights in the quiet Eurovan, all by myself!

Ms. Walton’s ethereal novel takes me back to the pleasure of Florence but also to that whole year smelling the flowers away from professional responsibility. I got back into art and the philosophical, free-floating but gloriously structured world of the imagination that had filled my head as an English lit undergrad.

The story: a somewhat Walton-autobiographical modern writer Sylvia is in Florence concocting an imaginary Renaissance version of the city called Thalia, where otherworldly characters and events have done away with most deaths, and real historical characters hundreds of years old live a mental and political life. Jo Walton is a classicist but you don’t have to nail down the references to enjoy their casual historical structure bringing an imaginary city and people down to earth. In another era, as a young Shakespearian couple walking together step over a gap on the ground, he reaching out and helping her, nothing more or less than their falling in love in that moment carries them to Thalia. There they join and become part with the local multi-centenarians.

All this is narrated by a male… spirit? who is captive in Sylvia’s “skull”. Who, what is he? Whatever or not, he’s the center of the story that holds it together: her muse, or her imagination, the essence of her experience. Anyway, he has a problem because Sylvia is dying of cancer. As the guy who helps her to write, he says to us:

That’s what I was trying to get on the page this time… and what you’re reading now, if you even exist, is the book in the mind, the words that never make it to the page, the unwritten, unreadable story that always runs a pulsebeat ahead under everything we do and think and say all the time, unheard narrative of life… I know you don’t exist. But I keep on talking to you.

This story isn’t only an intellectual meta-exercise although it’s all of that. It’s an invitation to understand experience as more than missing a fabulous gallery because your beloved children are crying and pulling at your arm. An imaginary character’s life-changing moment makes the world more real and its mundane constraints inconsequential, though they never go away.

For anyone lucky enough to return in reality to an imaginary Florence this story hits the spot. 9.4/9.1.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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