Thursday 14 April 2011

Diana Wynne Jones: Best Loved Books - Ellen Renner

This post is a tribute to Diana Wynne Jones, who died last month. I discovered her books nearly fifteen years ago, just at the moment when I had realised I wanted to write for children, and promptly fell in love. She is my favourite of favourites; one of only half a dozen writers whose books I can re-read and enjoy as much each time. She could do it all: elegant prose, big themes, clever plotting. But a clever plot is mere problem solving. Magic rests in characters. That is a gift of imagination and ear. To write characters who live off the page, a writer has to become her characters as she writes, and no amount of intellect will make up for a deficit of empathy. Diana Wynne Jones understood pain. All her main characters are flawed or damaged, and that's what makes them interesting.

I knew it would be no simple task to pick only three books by Wynne Jones to write about here, and so it proved.

I have to start with Charmed Life, the first book of hers I read and still, probably, the one I love most. Charmed Life illustrates a repeated theme in DWJ: a young person in search of their identity, coming to terms with their unique gifts. The young Cat Chant, orphaned, bewildered and stubbornly gullible, must come to terms with who and what he is. Why is Cat such an attractive character? Wynne Jones revisited him twice more: in the deliciously dark novella, Stealer of Souls, and the long awaited sequel to Charmed Life, The Pinhoe Egg. In neither of these does she quite pull off the magic Cat has over the reader in his first outing. And that, I think, is because in the later stories he knows what and who and what he is. Cat's magic in his first adventure is that he is running from himself as fast as he can, and we wait with bated breath for his destiny to catch him up.

My second choice has to be Howl's Moving Castle. Here it is another orphan, Sophie Hatter, who in classic fairy tale mode sets out to seek her fortune. Like Cat Chant, Sophie seems almost wilfully blind to her magic ability, her identity, until forced to accept her powers. And again, it is this avoidance of the obvious, this refusal of talent, which drives both plot and characterisation. But the real star of the book is the slippery, vain wizard Howl (that ultimate slitherer-outer) who is, like Sophie, hiding from himself. In the turn-upon-twist denouement, a real tour-de-force of plotting, both hero and heroine are forced to accept their gifts and use them honestly.

It was difficult to choose a third title. So many vie for next loved: Dogsbody, Fire and Hemlock, The Lives of Christopher Chant, The Homeward Bounders, Deep Secret (and its sort-of sequel, The Merlin Conspiracy), Hexwood, Black Maria, The Ogre Downstairs and A Tale of Time City. I especially enjoy the fact that, although Wynne Jones revisits certain character types and themes, each book is different.

But in the end, I chose The Magicians of Caprona, partly because of one, perfectly realised scene. An enchantress known as the White Devil turns the two children, Tonino and Angelica, into a living Punch and Judy and they are forced to re-enact the puppet show, with all its violence, before an audience of adults, some knowing and some innocent of the children's true identities. This is sheer horror, a darkness of concept handled with perfection, not candy-coated but made acceptable to young readers because of the accuracy of her characterisation of her young hero Tonino. Throughout the book, his observations, reactions, emotions ring absolutely true for a boy of eight to ten, including a lovely messy cake-eating-in-front-of-adults scene (which I frankly stole and recreated in Castle of Shadows), girls-as-other, unthinking rivalry between clans. The Magicians of Caprona is a tour de force in point of view and voice from beginning to end.

Those are my three favourite books by Diana Wynne Jones. What are yours?


Mary Hoffman said...

My all time favourite, as I think you know, is Fire and Hemlock. But I love Howl's Moving Castle and the character of Howl, who I see as being a bit like David Bowie in Labyrinth. (It's the narcissism. I wish Diana hadn't written the sequels though).

And my third would be Archer's Goon, because I love the idea of the wizards who run the utilities and the dizzying recognition of Howard's true self.

But there are just so MANY that are absolute corkers and you are right that it is very hard to choose.

A lovely post - thank you.

Michelle at Clover Hill Book Reviews said...

My absolute favourite is Howl's Moving Castle :)

Joan Lennon said...

Power of Three, Hexwood and Fire and Hemlock. But choosing is hard!

John Dougherty said...

Can't choose. All else aside, I haven't yet read the entire canon - I only discovered Diana Wynne Jones a few years ago (and how is it possible that such a writer isn't much, much better known?).

I love a number of the books already mentioned, but I do have a soft spot for the first DWJ book I read: Eight Days of Luke.

catdownunder said...

Charmed Life, Magicians of Caprona and Fire and Hemlock.
I was utterly delighted at the way Jones deals with issue of human-cat communication in Caprona too!
(Nobody has mentioned "A tale of time city" in any of the reviews I have seen.)

Keren David said...

Loved The Ogre Downstairs as well.

Kathryn Evans said...

Charmed Life - I came to DWJ late in life and this hit me like a rounders bat to the head having lapped up Harry Potter. I couldn't believe why no-one had said JKR was following in the footsteps of DWJ ( among others....)

madwippitt said...

How on earth do you choose?
If I could have only one on my desert island it would have to be Fire and Hemlock! Given the luxury of three, then it would be accompanied by Howl and The Tough guide to Fantasyland which is just soooo much fun!

Mary Hoffman said...

Absolutely agree about The Tough Guide, Madwippitt.

And I think, Cat, that I mentioned Tale of Time City in my blog obit on 2nd April. I am certainly going to go in for a big re-read and buy any missing volumes.

But maybe not Dalemark - not my favourite genre for DWJ.

jongleuse said...

So hard! I was lucky enough to read Charmed Life, The Ogre Downstairs and Witch Week as a child and adored them so would have to pick them. The sheer fun and the inventiveness! Genuinely scary too, thinking of Charmed Life and the betrayal of Cat especially. However I read and lovedHowls Moving Castle as an adult so will just have to have a fourth.
Must add that I loved your Castle of Shadows and am looking forward to City of Thieves.

Ellen Renner said...

@BookMaven: I agree about the Howl sequels and Dalemark, but at least it shows even DWJ sometimes got it less than perfectly right, which a comfort to lesser mortals. And yes, I love Fire and Hemlock too!

@John: She is very well known in certain circles and has a devoted following, but has never had the critical acclaim she deserves. I have my theories as to why. Another blog post, that.

@cat: Yes, she is marvelous with the cats in Caprona and both cats and dogs in Dogsbody. Totally unsentimental but loads of empathy & imagination.

@jongleuse: Thank you! Hope you enjoy City.

Katherine Langrish said...

'The Time of the Ghost'is my out and out favourite. Then, maybe, 'Dogsbody', and either 'The Homeward Bounders' or 'Fire and Hemlock'.

catdownunder said...

Oops! So you did mention A tale of time city Book Maven - sorry. It is a curious book - time goes forward, backward, around (clockwise and anti-clockwise) and up and down as well - if that is possible.

Cathy Butler said...

Fire and Hemlock is in top spot for me, though in a way it's not the most typical DWJ (whatever that means). I'd add Archer's Goon, as showing a very different side of her range, and then (a less obvious one) Drowned Ammet. I just love what she does with gods in the Dalemark series.

Brooksie said...

For me it would be the first three I read... 'Archer's Goon', followed by 'The Ogre Downstairs' then 'Dogsbody'.

Following those would be 'Witch Week' and 'Eight Days of Luke' (which I discovered on my sisters bookshelf one day having never realised there was a DWJ book in the house, then opened it to find it was signed!)

'Fire and Hemlock' would also merit an honourable mention (not that it hasn't been well represented on people's lists!)

@kathryn: "I couldn't believe why no-one had said JKR was following in the footsteps of DWJ ( among others....)"

Oh they have... and they did. I can recall saying it myself just as the JK Potter phenomenon started.

@Ellen: "She is very well known in certain circles and has a devoted following, but has never had the critical acclaim she deserves. I have my theories as to why. Another blog post, that."

That's a blog post I would very much like to read!

I'm kind of glad to see 'The Magicians of Caprona' on your list. It's one which often gets unfairly overlooked in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I have to say... as someone who is still sort of a lazy little girl who does nothing but read, A House of Many Ways is definitely my favorite.

Anonymous said...

Eight days of Luke is amazing :) x