So, the day that Diana Wynne Jones died is upon us.
I don’t think I’ve written enough about how much I love her work. I’m deeply grateful that she’s been so prolific, but I still feel robbed at the thought of never getting another slice of Chrestomanci life again.
Why do I adore her work? It all began because of strawberrymillk, who is the consummate marketeer. Hearing from her how hearing Charmed Life read aloud was a panacea to the dumps (I would personally recommend The Princess Bride for this application), I was left with no choice but to read it for myself. And this is what I found:
There are plenty of good children’s book writers out there. They engage you. They entertain you. They draw into you into a knowable world for a little while and make you laugh, sigh and cry. Off the top of my head, I’d say Gail Carson Levine with Ella Enchanted (go for the book, not the movie), Sharon Creech with Walk Two Moons (also Love That Dog), and Jonathan Stroud with The Bartimaeus Trilogy (the third is killer) are examples of the top of the league.
But, oh, Diana Wynne Jones!
Just as magic in her books is not as simple as fairy dust — never a sort of deus ex machina, always the least of a character’s problems, really — her stories are largely more complex, layered and insightful than you’d expect in a ‘mere’ children’s book. Good is never so squeaky clean as to grate on your nerves, because it’s about fundamental human decency. Evil is not so much banal as chilling, because too often it stems from selfishness in those meant to love and protect you. Romance doesn’t run on empty, starry-eyed whimsy; I love her deft build-up towards the ‘but of course’ moment. But most of all, the lady weaved ripping yarns.
I’m quite pleased that I’ve read most of her output (can’t quite get through Changeover yet) — displaying my somewhat-complete collection would make a nest out of anywhere for me, I imagine. So many of her works are worth your time (particularly Fire and Hemlock, which is based on the Scottish legends Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer), but here’s my top five (in the order I thought of them):
1.The Lives of Christopher Chant
My favourite in the Chrestomanci series, I knew DWJ meant business when mermaids got chopped up. Yes, in a children’s book. Done discreetly, but done. If you’re starting on the Chrestomanci series, do read Charmed Lives first.
2. Dark Lord of Derkholm
The quest as viewed from the other side of the looking glass, this is perfect in its wryness. Again, there’s no shying away from the darkness of deeds — quite disturbing when a bad thing happened to a good character, but DWJ’s realistic form of fantasy reflects how we don’t necessarily get to escape from every dire situation. Then the world goes on turning, and ‘happy-ever-after’ is usually not so much a consequence of circumstances as a decision we make.
3. Year of the Griffin
Sequel to the above, enthused about here. How could you resist griffins in academia?! This and DLoD are my first choices for a re-read when sick in bed.
4. Cart and Cwidder
I still feel aggrieved that other books in the Dalemark Quartet don’t feature the same protagonist — he’s that well drawn. Metaphorical rock and roll on a mystical lute? Simply put, a generous serving of awesome sauce.
5. Howl’s Moving Castle
Nothing against the movie, but it is as uniquely Miyazaki as the book is classic DWJ. Adolescent conditioned to believe she won’t amount to any good? Check. Burgeoning awareness that there is more to her (or him) than she ever dared suspect? Check. Intricately woven threads suddenly pulled tight to reveal a glorious picture full of shades and wonder? Check. Ending gives you a bit of a pang when you realise you have to part ways with the characters? Checkmate.
If you dip your toes in and like the feeling, may I suggest you head to the official DWJ website, where you can find talks and articles by her good self, a rather riveting autobiography, and some pieces about her (including one by Neil Gaiman).
Here ends my toast to Ms Jones; may generations come under your thrall, and find in you respite from mediocrity and inspiration to dig up a voice of their own.
You will be missed.