On Sunday afternoon we were jabbering, as usual, about books. Inspired by upcoming film The Eagle, based on the marvelous children’s book The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, I was regaling Dapper with some of the fantastic novels I read as a child, trying to force upon him the enthusiasm I have for the YA fantasy fiction genre in the hopes it might filter through to the teens he teaches. After a brief stop-off at Alan Garner’s brilliant myth-based masterpieces (veering off to share an anecdote about a particularly difficult game of charades featuring The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and the acting out of “gammon” as a “sounds-like” clue), and via the Slavic folklore villain Baba Yaga and her moving house, we somehow arrived smartly at the door of beloved writer of my childhood, Diana Wynne Jones.
“How can you not know Diana Wynne Jones?!” I doubtless demanded, and began to babble incoherently about her brilliance, her imagination, her non-patronising style: “Hexwood is brilliant – No, Fire and Hemlock, that’s her best – Oh, and Howl’s Moving Castle too… And don’t forget Charmed Life or Witch Week… And my favourite, my absolute favourite is The Ogre Downstairs!”
The Ogre Downstairs is the story of a step-father. A shouty, intimidating step-father who has moved into the house and makes the children’s life… difficult! The children have to learn to share their home, not only with him, but with his two sons, to share their mother’s previously undivided attention – and to tread more lightly rather than thundering up the stairs. Room-sharing aside, this was a set-up I was all too familiar with. Unfortunatly, my own step-father never bought me a chemistry set in the hopes it would keep me quiet, resulting in escapades involving unvoluntary flight, invisibility, and attempted murder…*
As with all of Diana’s books, as the story unfolds, the characters grow and develop, coming to terms with their situation and learning to empathise with one another. The story’s climax, in which the mother decides she has had enough and marches off into the sunset (or, in fact, nips around to a friend’s house to unwind!) sees the whole family unite to find her.
The beauty of Diana’s books was in their unrelenting story-driven narrative. As a child reader I never felt as if I were being patronised, as if the story was, in fact, a morality tale dressed up in adventure clothing. The magic was not incidental to the emotional development of the characters; nor were the initial hurt, anger and rebellion of the children ever disregarded as petulant or childish, as is often the case in pre-teen novels. Diana had a true talent for making children’s feelings valuable, and for telling imaginitive tales that avoided dumbing down. Nothing was ever over-emphasised or over-explained – she trusted her readers to deduce as much or as little as they needed.
When I heard that Diana had died over the weekend I was saddened. But I was also pleased, somehow, that I had been animatedly enthusing about her work, even as she passed. Books that can excite that enthusiasm even years after their first reading, they’re a true legacy to leave behind.
Neil Gaiman knew Diana well, and as such his memorial blog post to her is moving and insightful. But best of all, it doesn’t detract from how great and imaginative a writer she was, but rather affirms the fact. So often, when our heroes die and we lift the veil of magic over their lives we are left disappointed. With Diane Wynne Jones, that “witchy and wonderful woman”, this is not so.
*This did not stop my friend Lisa and I filling an almost-empty Matey bubble-bath bottle with apple juice, drinking the resulting soapy liquid and proclaiming ourselves as the inventors of a new laughing potion. The fact that, when I tried the same recipe on my own a couple of nights later, it didn’t actually work, did nothing to dampen my belief in our shared powers of alchemy.