Diana Wynne Jones died today, and I feel like I’ve lost a friend. I’ve been reading her novels for over thirty years. I love her work so much that I bought Enchanted Glass the other day at the school book fair, (allegedly for my daughter, but I’m enjoying it a great deal thank you very much).
I can still remember the first DWJ novel I read. I was in the school library one lunchtime when I came across Power of Three. Browsing through the shelves I picked out a nice chunky book, with an enticing front cover – a grey shape emerging out of the water. I sat down and began to read and was immediately drawn into the atmospheric world of Otmounders, Dorig and Giants, and the story of how the curse of a dying Dorig has to be undone if the three communities are going to survive. I couldn’t put it down, and though I haven’t read it for years, I have never forgotten it. As a gawky, unsure thirteen year old, I completely identified with the central character Gair, who is the only child in his family to lack a special gift. I loved the way Gair learnt to believe in himself, to act courageously and that the very thing he thinks makes him useless, is in fact the best gift of all. It took me a couple more years to develop my self-confidence but books like Power of Three were a great comfort to me in the mean time.
After Power of Three, I read The Homeward Bounders, a somewhat dark tale of children trapped in a virtual gaming world that seems enormously prescient now. Next was Wilkins’ Tooth, a group of kids responding to bullying by trying to set up Own Back Ltd with disastrous results. In The Ogre Downstairs, two families come together when their parents marry, creating conflict between the children. When they are given magical chemistry sets, chaos ensues, and they learn to understand each other better. Then there’s Dogsbody ( I love Dogsbody) which tells the story of Sirius the Dog Star, who loses his powers and comes to earth as a dog, in order to find a Zoi. The trouble is he can’t remember what a Zoi is, and is too full of doggy thoughts to work out how to find it. Eight Days of Luke rewrites Norse mythology when an unhappy boy curses his relatives and releases the God Loki from his prison. And of course, there are the Chrestomanci stories, Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant, Conrad’s Fate,The Magicians of Caprona and others, set in a parallel world where magic is part of every day life and managed by the government post of Chrestomanci.
My absolute favourite has to be Hexwood which I picked up at my Mum’s house, my sister had brought it for our nephew and he had left it behind. It is a stunning book, not really for children at all. It starts with a girl, Ann Stavely sick in bed, watching the strange comings and goings of people to the Hexwood Farm opposite, whilst she talks to four voices in her head, The King, the Prisoner, The Boy, The Slave. Then suddenly, we are transported to another planet where a group of shadowy leaders are trying to rectify a virtual game on Earth that has gone awry. Various characters are sent off to see what has happened, without resolving matters. Meanwhile, as Ann recovers from her illness, she decides to visit the Farm where she meets a strange character called Mordion and a boy called Hume. The story is told in a complicated time frame with Ann encountering the two of them at different stages of their lives, and then reaches a startling revelation about half way through which completely changes everything you’ve read up to that point. A very complex narrative structure is wrapped up with a satisfying ending in a story that has explored issues of power, corruption, child soldiers, and slavery. It’s fantastic, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Overall, what I have loved about Wynne Jones all these years was her ability to create believable authentic fantasy worlds, tell stories with wit, compassion and heart. But her stories weren’t just about magical worlds, they all had a message: the importance of reconciliation; self discovery; overcoming fear, standing up to bullies. But she did it in such a subtle way, that I never felt she was preaching and I always learnt something.
Coincidentally, I learnt of Diana Wynne Jones’ death just as I reached Hyde Park today at the end of the anti cuts march. The middle of a good humoured crowd of people, standing up for what they believed in, seemed a good place to mourn the loss of a writer, who has inspired me for years.
So thank you Diana, for all the wonderful books and characters. I know I’m not alone in saying I’ll miss you. The world is a duller place without you.