First published on 27th April, 2014 in The Star
‘And then it was finished and she was gone again,’ writes Ursula Jones in the afterword of The Islands of Chaldea. How many Diana Wynne Jones (DWJ) fans have been longing to read the final work from the late, great author — and dreading it, too? We’re thinking, ‘When it’s finished, she will be gone. Again.’ But really, that’s not true.
When I heard DWJ had died, two years ago, I selfishly thought, ‘What? No more wonderful stories?’ I would be lying if I said I wept. I didn’t know her, but I know and love many of her books, and they’re still with me – a double-stacked, sagging shelf of them. And I find that I don’t much mind there’ll be no more wonderful stories, because the ones she left are enough to last a lifetime. Or two.
The DWJs I love best are new each time I read them – not totally unfamiliar, just different, like they’ve grown since I last turned their pages. I always thought DWJ looked magnificently witchy, and so I believe it’s entirely possible her books continue to magically evolve after they’ve been published. And not in a uniform manner either, but depending on the reader. That’s so like something she would put in a book, isn’t it?
I bought my first DWJ, The Time of the Ghost, 28 years ago and it still unnerves me. When I re-read it, I feel wound up, anxious, suspicious. I love every word and expect every sentence to trip me up (they do, repeatedly). I look at my other beloved DWJs and they’re the same, the secretive, spiteful, entrancing little bastards. I love them truly, madly, deeply, but I wouldn’t if they didn’t cause me so much pain.
The Islands of Chaldea, published earlier this year, and completed by DWJ’s younger sister Ursula Jones, bristles with magical potential. It’s as eccentric, shocking and unusual as you’d wish DWJ’s parting shot to be, but it’s gentler than her best work, less sly, more accommodating.
You won’t get lost between lines, and paragraphs won’t swallow you whole. I think DWJ might not have had the chance to mutter a final spell over it, and so, although poised to grow into a whole other beast, it won’t, having not received that last invocation to bewitch and bewilder.
It is, however, a fearless and fearsome novel. Only DWJ writes such stories for children. They’re brutal and brutally honest. They acknowledge that parents don’t always care about what’s best for you, that parents may indeed wish you dead. They say that bad stuff happens to everyone, and maybe things get fixed, or maybe not. They say life is full of bad luck and misery, but also bursting with beauty and kindness. They say when true love happens, it’s often inexplicable or even improbable.
They say if you think they’re out to get you, they probably are, so be prepared — trust your instincts, but don’t be paranoid. They say walls shut out the good as well as the bad. They say lots of wise things, but if you’re lazy, if you read with only half your mind switched on, you’ll miss everything and might end up thinking, ‘Well, I’m not going to bother with her again.’ That would be a shame.
Back in the early 2000s, HarperCollins re-issued some DWJ titles thanks to the popularity of Harry Potter. So, if you love JK Rowling, would you like DWJ? Not necessarily. I won’t recommend DWJ unless I know you’ve read and enjoyed authors like Ursula Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and Terry Pratchett, or anyone whose writing has a little more depth than Rowling’s.
DWJ isn’t anywhere as accessible as Rowling, and that means she’s frequently misunderstood. You really have to work to ‘get’ her stories (magic spells notwithstanding), but when you do, it’s like nothing on Earth. Just as she was like nothing on Earth, and just as her books will continue to captivate and dazzle, enchant and enthral, bedevil and beguile, leaving us spellbound forevermore.