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?