Diana Wynne Jones, who died on March 26th at the age of 76, was one of my favourite authors when I was a child, and is one of the few writers of children’s books that I continued to read, albeit somewhat irregularly, into adulthood. Her novels can broadly be categorised as fantasy, in that they all contain magical or mystical events, characters or artefacts (and even the occasional dragon or griffin), but shouldn’t be dismissed as pompous or humourless escapism – she’s one of the most astute and honest recorders of the child’s view of the world I know, and writes in a pleasingly down-to-earth and often very funny style that simultaneously undercuts and heightens the more fantastical elements of her stories. She skilfully avoids both the portentousness of Tolkien and the jokeyness of Pratchett and creates consistent and emotionally true relationships between her characters that provide you with a route through the bizarre situations she sets up, which is, apart from anything else, very considerate of her: some of the scenarios she presents are amazingly imaginative, with the regular definitions of time, space and even identity being tested to breaking point. She was also incredibly prolific – Wikipedia lists 35 novels, and many short stories and other projects published between 1970 and 2011, and the books are anything but formulaic (the ones I’ve read, anyway).
I’ve been digging out some of her books (and re-acquiring others, thanks to the miracle of Amazon Marketplace) since the news of her death came through, to see whether they retain their appeal and how they compare with the more recent fantasy franchises I’ve encountered. Gratifyingly, so far I’ve got to say they snag my imagination better than pretty much anything from the 21st Century featuring wizardry, witchcraft or massed armies of computer-generated beasties battling noisily (Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings films are a notable exception to this). The Ogre Downstairs, for example, is a little masterpiece: the ogre of the title is actually nothing more than the unsympathetic stepfather of three children, who are forced to live with him and his two standoffish sons when their mother remarries. The fantasy element of the story is provided by a chemistry set of dubious provenance, the contents of which provoke various unexpected effects – one makes you lighter than air, one turns base metal to gold, one causes two people to bodyswap Freaky Friday style, one causes inanimate objects to come to life (the wriggling and ever-growing toffee bars are particularly icky) and so on. Any one of these phenomena could easily have formed the basis of a perfectly satisfactory children’s book on its own but Wynne Jones characteristically throws them out lightly and doesn’t dwell on them once the point’s been made. Underneath all this, the real plot of the book is moving forward: the gradual coming to a head of all five children’s real grievances against the Ogre, and the friction in the marriage that’s eventually exposed. In Wynne Jones’s books adults are often unreliable, self-centred and neglectful and it can be up to the children to instigate a correction, and what’s really impressive here, as elsewhere, is how natural and believable the confrontations and resolutions are – no Roald Dahl style black comedy vengeance here.
Wynne Jones’s earlier books tend to be set in recognisable urban and suburban locales, with the fantasy elements being stumbled across by regular, and often disadvantaged, children. As well as The Ogre Downstairs there’s Eight Days Of Luke, in which a lonely boy inadvertently conjures up an incarnation of a mischievous Norse God, Wilkins’ Tooth, in which the assumptions a children’s gang have made about a witch-like woman turn out to be surprisingly accurate, Archer’s Goon, in which the powers-that-be that really run an English town are discovered to be somewhat more exotic than the local council, and the heartbreaking Dogsbody, ostensibly about a short-tempered celestial being banished to Earth in the form of a domestic animal, but really about a lonely and ill-treated girl whose only solace is the love she has for her unusually intelligent and responsive dog. You could also include in this group the atmospheric Fire And Hemlock, about a teenage girl who discovers a set of repressed memories of her friendship with a gawky but resolute musician who is struggling to free himself from the influence of his mysterious and sinister ex-wife.
Later on the stories set in alternative realities and deceptively familiar fairytale settings start to be more prevalent. Wynne Jones loves to play with and undermine the standard pre-conceptions about scenarios involving kings, queens, lords, castles, ancient curses and sacred treasures, to the extent that she published a faux guidebook in the mid-90s called The Tough Guide To Fantasyland which reads as both a critique and an affectionate tribute to the well worn tropes of the genre. Truth be told, I find her books in this vein harder going than those that start off in the “real” world as they tend to drop you straight into unfamiliar milieus and let you figure out the rules of the worlds at the same time as the characters start subverting them, but my difficulties may stem from the fact that I didn’t get to most of these books until adulthood, and as the author was fond of pointing out, adults don’t read books nearly as carefully as children do. Nevertheless, there are quite a few goodies to recommend: A Sudden Wild Magic, Cart And Cwidder, Year Of The Griffin and Howl’s Moving Castle, which was eventually made into a beautiful, if bafflingly complicated, animation by the Japanese master Hayao Mayazaki. Identity seems particularly mutable in these books, characters are frequently unmasked as imposters, or change name, or age, or species – you need to pay close attention.
I can’t really pick out an all-time favourite Wynne Jones book, but anyone reading this who might want to test the water won’t do much better than Charmed Life, published in 1977. Here we have an alternative English society in which some people have magical powers and some people don’t, and those in the first group tend to look down on those in the second. We have an exclusive school where young witches and wizards are trained by eccentric professors of magic. We have an assortment of spells and charms, the effects of which range from whimsical to devastating. We have a group of bad wizards trying to get the upper hand over the established hierarchy of good, but possibly a bit fusty, wizards…sound familiar? Even if it does, Charmed Life is still worth checking out, if only for not one but two expertly carried off plot twists that pull the carpet out from under you as effectively as an airport thriller. Or indeed, any seven book fantasy series you might care to mention. Diana Wynne Jones got there first, and got there better.