“aaAAaaHH!!” That’s the contented sigh of someone who has spent a week closeted with every kind of human trauma and misery (see last week’s post), and is now settling into the familiar magic of a Diana Wynne Jones book – usually to be found under J in the bookshop or library, but it’s worth checking the Ws too.
I myself became aware of Diana Wynne Jones at exactly the right age, just as she began writing books for children. Wilkins’ Tooth was a compelling, edgy and unsettling debut which hinged on the uncomfortable truth that every child recognises and every grown-up fears: whenever you tell a grown-up that something really is wrong, you know they won’t take you seriously. Frank and Jess have their pocket money stopped just when they badly need to repay the local bully. A get-rich-quick scheme soon leads them into confrontation with not just the bully and his gang but with the screeching, seething Biddy Iremonger… who can’t possibly be a witch. Or can she?
Wilkins’ Tooth began to set a pattern: stories which started with the apparently ordinary, only to spool into realms of fantasy and folklore, brilliantly interleaved with the recognisable and mundane. In The Ogre Downstairs, one of my very favourite childhood books, two families are uncomfortably melded when Sally marries Jack (a.k.a. The Ogre), and Sally’s averagely unruly children Caspar, Johnny and Gwinny have to make terms with their well-spoken and resentful stepbrothers, Malcolm and Douglas. Then the Ogre gives Malcolm and Johnny identical chemistry sets, and it transpires that some of the chemicals in the second layer have very peculiar properties indeed. The way that the five children manage the effects of weightlessness, size-changing, iridescence, body-switching, the unwelcome animation of dustballs and toffee bars, then invisibility and magically-conjured warriors alongside family feuding and the secrecy made necessary by the Ogre’s fearsome temper, is both keenly observed and effortlessly hilarious.
Eight Days of Luke finds David Allard’s life turned upside down at the beginning of the summer holidays. Being an orphan, David dreads the holidays with his irritable and unsympathetic relations, and their housekeeper Mrs Thirsk’s colourless cooking is infinitely worse than school dinners. After a particularly unbearable morning of being humiliated and harangued, David resolves to curse the lot of them; but the curse doesn’t have quite the effect he intended. Somehow, instead he has released a stranger called Luke from (Luke says) a particularly horrible prison. Luke seems to be a little older than David, and is excellent company, appearing whenever David lights a match and effortlessly charming all the dreadful relations. Then Luke’s pursuers start closing in: the sinister new gardener, Mr Chew, and the powerful, all-knowing Mr Wedding with his raven spies. In his sleepy suburb, David has roused the Norse Gods, and finds himself in a battle of wits to save Luke-Loki from terrible retribution, learning a few startling truths about the relatives along the way. Superbly imagined, funny and totally compelling.
With Dogsbody and Power of Three, on the other hand, the otherwordly slowly resolves into the familiar. Dogsbody begins with a trial in the heavens, with the hot-tempered dog star Sirius accused of murder. His arcane punishment is to be reborn on earth as a puppy: he has a dog’s short lifetime to clear his name and find the murder weapon which will prove his innocence. Only just saved from drowning after birth, he is adopted by Kathleen, a lonely Irish girl who lives unhappily with her resentful aunt and family in England, and named Leo. Sirius-Leo’s’ dog’s-eye view of the world is brilliantly conveyed and has some wonderful comic moments, especially in his encounters with the family cats, but also deftly records how Kathleen is exploited by her aunt and casually bullied at school. Meanwhile, Sirius begins to realise the dangers closing in on him from star-life to dog-life, and the narrative becomes taut as a thriller, leading to a brilliant, bravura, bittersweet ending.
Power of Three appears to begin in a shadowy realm much influenced by Celtic mythology, where clans fight with Giants and with water-dwelling Dorig. Within the shadow-realm though is the entirely human dynamic of a twelve-year-old trying to bully and impress his little sister, with disastrous and far-reaching consequences. A generation later, the bully Orban is father to another bully, and his sister Adara has three children of her own: Ayna and Ceri, with their supernatural gifts, and Gair who believes he has no gift and is a disappointment to his jolly, hearty father. Power of Three is not only a gripping story but shows one of Wynne Jones’ own outstanding gifts: even within a purely imagined world, the characters are utterly believable and the psychological web between them is as quite as rich and varied and perverse and complex as real life. Then, as the clans are attacked and Adara’s three children are forced to flee, they start to discover some surprising truths about their own enemies – not least the true nature of the Giants – and Gair finds he may have useful gifts of his own after all; gifts which he may need if he is to have any hope of lifting a dying curse and saving his family and people.
Charmed Life brought Wynne Jones to a rich seam of stories, winning the then Guardian Award (now Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize). Cat Chant and his sister Gwendolen live in a recognisable world, perhaps a little old-fashioned (motor-cars are distinctly rare and luxurious) but with a great deal of magic in it – as becomes clear when Cat and Gwendolen’s parents are killed in a boating accident, the orphans are adopted by a witch and Gwendolen is taken on as an exceptionally promising pupil by a neighbouring necromancer. Gwendolen is a determined and powerful personality, and Cat clings to her instinctively as Gwendolen then arranges for them to be adopted by the powerful enchanter Chrestomanci. Once installed at Chrestomanci Castle, however, Gwendolen finds things are not going her way. Chrestomanci seems unimpressed with her magical talent and the children’s tutor forbids her to practise. Cat watches in horror as Gwendolen progresses from magical mischief to walking between worlds, forcing a very confused and earthly Janet Chant into the place she has left behind. Bereft at first, Cat comes to realise that Janet is not only a much nicer person than Gwendolen but also a valuable ally in learning to understand the Castle and what he is doing there; but Gwendolen has not finished with Cat and the castle yet, and even the most powerful enchanter has his points weakness. And Cat has no magical ability at all… or does he? Chrestomanci went on to feature in six more books, all now magnificently reissued by HarperCollins.
Howl’s Moving Castle opened up another seam (and another set of beautifully-designed covers). Like Cat Chant’s world, Sophie Hatter’s Land of Ingary is a place where seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really do exist. In such a land, and as the eldest of three sisters, Sophie is resigned to being perfectly ordinary and is quietly lonely and exploited, working in her stepmother’s hat shop. How could a little grey mouse like Sophie have offended the Witch of the Waste? But the witch casts an ageing spell on her nonetheless, and Sophie with her aching old body and all-new grumbling, determined personality, has no choice but to leave home and find her fortune. She’s no longer scared of the tales of Wizard Howl with his moving castle: he might be said to eat young girls’ hearts and suck out their souls, but as an old woman Sophie is fearless. All she wants is a warm dry place to sleep… and the castle, surprisingly small inside, badly needs a good clean and tidy. Soon Sophie has talked herself into a job, and found that Howl is not quite the ghoul he makes out; and Howl and his household have come to terms with Sophie and her newfound bossiness. As ever, the imagination, the characterisation and the humour are unmatchable. Who else could not only devise a moving castle but one with four doors opening in different places, one of which proves to be a valley town in Wales? Who else could give a powerful enchanter the vanity of a boy in his late teens – and not only the whim to learn to play the guitar but a lamentable lack of talent for it? (This, by the way, was the book that brought forth the contented sigh – and I am very happy to know that there are two sequels to go.)
For younger readers, the recent Earwig and the Witch is an excellent romp in what might now be called Beginner Gothic (see also Marcus Sedgwick’s Raven Mysteries). Earwig (not Erica, please) is an orphan who doesn’t want to be adopted: she is perfectly happy at St Morwald’s with her friend Custard, and not at all pleased when the spooky tall man and the blue-rinsed woman choose her from all the children. She’s hardly surprised to find that Bella Yaga is a witch, but is thoroughly annoyed when Bella Yaga makes her do all the hard work of an assistant and refuses to teach her any real magic. With the help of Thomas, Bella Yaga’s reluctant black cat, Erica sets out to show Bella Yaga that you do not mess with a small girl with a strong personality and magic in her blood.
Vile Visitors brings together two stories published some years previously in a new edition. Angus Flint invites himself to stay with an old college friend after his marriage breaks up, then shows no sign of leaving. He’s an unspeakable guest: greedy, inconsiderate, endlessly complaining, bullying the children and mean to the dog, not to mention the furniture. He resists all argument by doing yoga and standing on his head. The parents’ hints and the children’s subterfuges make no impression – so who, in the end, did get rid of Angus Flint? Chair Person, meanwhile, seems to be the result of an unfortunate magical accident. If an unloved and disreputable old armchair came to life, how might it look? (Horribly embarrassing, what with its unlovely upholstery, spilling stuffing and ancient ink and coffee stains.) What might it eat? (Everything, in huge quantities, regardless of anyone else in the house.) How might it behave? (By assertively boring everyone within range with the results of many years’ passive television watching, including all the adverts.) Most importantly, is there any way to turn it back into a chair again, preferably somewhere quite harmless?
Wynne Jones died in 2011, and among her last and most satisfying books is Enchanted Glass. Like so many of hers, it’s as much a treat for adults as for children – a masterly tapestry of plausible magic and fully-formed, likeable, understandable characters who are as maddening as they are affecting, from Andrew the apparently bemused academic to Mr Brown, his patrician, condescending and entirely unscrupulous nemesis. Andrew inherits beautiful, battered Melstone House from his grandfather, along with a housekeeper and gardener whose attempts to impose their will through meaningful furniture-moving and gifts of large inedible vegetables are a delight to read. Within a week, he has also come by a terrified orphan, Aidan, whose grandmother was a friend of Andrew’s grandfather, and who finds a merciful place of safety at Melstone from his otherworldly pursuers. Within another week, thanks to the machinations of his cook and gardener, Andrew also has a handyman and a startlingly pretty and competent (if rather bossy) secretary. Besides being suddenly responsible for all these people, Andrew now has a Field of Care, and needs to discover just what it is and what he has to do for it – not to mention the meaning of Mr. Brown’s incursions on it, and his dire warnings about Counterparts. And who is Aidan, anyway, and why is he in such terrible danger?
If only I had time and space, I’d press on you some of Wynne Jones’ books for older readers – The Merlin Conspiracy with another brilliant, bold, parallel-worlds plot; Hexwood with its masterly interweaving of science fiction, Arthurian legend and the present day, and (current favourite) The Dark Lord of Derkholm and its spoof-guidebook counterpart, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (worth the price of admission for the entries on Ecology and Economy alone: every aspiring fantasy writer should read them and then think very carefully about the internal logic of their own imagined worlds). The Dark Lord is a brilliant satire on the swords’n’sorcery genre, but also contains a few pungent home truths about the tourist industry that I certainly recognise from my days as a driver and greeter. If by the next movie instalment of The Hobbit you are feeling somewhat glazed over by elves and dwarves, I urge you to look out a copy of The Dark Lord anywhere you can.
Not many writers can ever have stretched their readers’ imaginations in so many directions, and surely none in such perfect, evocative and unflashy style. Thank goodness I have Ursula Le Guin to look forward to next week – anyone else risked being such a disappointment.