Friday, April 20, 2012

A fan's notes

I am not sure whether it was idiocy or insanity that made me say yes to an invitation to participate in Sharyn November's blog book tour in celebration of Diana Wynne Jones; this time of the school year is so busy anyway, and on top of that I have a vast amount of work to do on my novel revision before I leave town for a few days next Thursday!  I was supposed to write yesterday, but it just didn't happen, and I was smitten with guilt when I got home in the later evening from a work event and found Sharyn's email wondering what had happened to me....

But really it wasn't idiocy or insanity.  It was the sheer fact that there is no single author whose novels I love more or whose books have brought me more pleasure over the years.  I have a lot of different kinds of favorite novelist.  I might name Haruki Murakami or Kazuo Ishiguro or Muriel Spark; Lee Child and Dick Francis occupy another axis of favorite reading, with Dorothy L. Sayers and Chester Himes popping in their heads at different angles; at the age when I first encountered the novels of Diana Wynne Jones, other favorites (this is a slightly funny list!) were Anthony Burgess, John Fowles, Robert Graves and Mary Renault.  Austen and Dickens were favorites then and remain favorites now.  Teju Cole is a new favorite; Charlie Williams and Ken Bruen are favorites on the five-year horizon, and really I could name about a hundred other favorites if I spent ten more minutes racking up the list.  There are always the Narnia books, too, which so thoroughly imprinted me at age six when I got the boxed set for my birthday that I think probably every other novel I have read since them has been an attempt to find something as thoroughly and magically transporting!  But there is some core sense in which Diana Wynne Jones is my absolutely favorite novelist.  Her books have an unusual quality of being both delightful and emotionally true; they are also quite complex, although to the best of my knowledge they were published almost exclusively for children or young adults.

If you haven't read her before, you couldn't do better than to order the Firebird reissue of Fire and Hemlock (it has a new introduction by Garth Nix, another favorite of mine whose new novel I am eagerly awaiting).  I had a battered paperback copy of this as a teenager that I must have read twenty times.  Howl's Moving Castle is probably her most formally perfect book, and I have a particular soft spot for the Chrestomanci books and for the absolutely wonderful and probably underrated Deep Secret, which describes the occult layout of the convention hotel more persuasively and accurately than any other novel ever written.  There are also revealing oddities like The Time of the Ghost, not her best novel but her most revealingly autobiographical one.  It is a trope of all of her novels that some people and some situations are so toxic that they leach the most important aspects out of our personalities, so that we forget our most authentic selves and can be dimmed into partial 'split' selves that lose any ability to make decisions or maintain autonomy or self-respect; one reason that fantasy is a particularly cherished genre for me is that it seems to me invoking magical explanations and histories is the single best way to describe this dispiriting aspect of human psychology....

I am still feeling the loss of Diana Wynne Jones.  I hate it that I won't get to read a dozen more new books by her, and I always secretly thought that one day our paths would cross.  It was not meant to be!  Her books are a treasure trove, though, and almost persuade me what I have sworn off, that it would be worth sitting down every few years to write a new novel if there was any chance it could capture some small part of the magic of one of hers.


  1. I've loved Diana's work for years and learned so much about it in the last few days from reading what other people see in it. Thank you for that encapsulation of the trope of the "split" selves. Delightful and emotionally true is such a perfect characterization of her books.

    Megan Whalen Turner

  2. I always secretly thought I'd meet her, too. And it kind of breaks my heart that I won't. And yet: I feel like I have met her - some of the crazyfun of her imagination, at least, has rubbed off on me. I think of that often...