My re-read of Diana Wynne Jones IS continuing, I swear, although it keeps getting interrupted by me being in the mood for other books (currently, Qiu Xialong’s Chief Inspector Chen mysteries). After a hugely satisfying Hexwood re-read, I started on the Unexpected Magic anthology, abandoned that and moved on to The Time of the Ghost.
The Time of the Ghost was my very first DWJ, bought in 1986, in Singapore when I was doing my ‘A ‘levels at National Junior College. I seem to remember a table with books laid out on it, at some kind of market or near a hawker centre. I think it was in Jurong West, where I stayed in a rented room. I still have the book I bought (above), a hardback Macmillan edition, with cover art by Maggie Heslop.
Looking at the jacket blurb, I know I must have been attracted by its opening line: ‘There were four Melford sisters’: Being one of four sisters, I’ve always been drawn to stories featuring female siblings, the more the merrier.
I remember liking the story, but also feeling rather bewildered by it. I certainly had never read anything like it before. At that point, the children’s books I’d read were by Enid Blyton, L.M. Montgomery, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, also classics like Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, Little Women, the Katy books, and The Wizard of Oz. However, I’d also had a taste of the strange, thanks to having found The Gardens of Dorr by Paul Biegle at The Students Service Centre in Batu Pahat! The Glassblowers’ Children by Maria Gripe was another odd and magical book I loved. So, TTOTG wasn’t so weird as to be off-putting.
I guess it was the first book I read in which the fantastic and supernatural are portrayed as a kind of mundane and even inconvenient part of everyday life. That’s what makes the story so disturbingly real — the idea that all around you there are other layers of reality, and that you may flip a switch accidentally; carelessly say a word or invent a name that turns out to be magic; play a game or make a joke that might spell your doom.
What is also unsettling and alarming about this story, which I don’t think I really got the first few times I read it, is the way the girls are actually abused and neglected by their parents. The characters and many of the events in this novel are based on DWJ’s own family and childhood, and, according to the author, the squalor the Melford sisters live in, as well as the way they are treated by their parents are actually toned down versions of the way it actually was for DWJ and her two sisters, Isobel and Ursula. In one of the pieces in Reflections: On the Magic of Writing, DWJ tells how Fenella’s knoted hair in TTOTG is based on something her sister Ursula actually did. In real life, Ursula’s knots ‘were not noticed for six months’!
DWJ has also written about how her sisters and she were very close, partly because they couldn’t count on their parents’ support, or affection. This comes through quite vividly in TTOTG, but quite subtly, disguised as sisterly scorn, contempt and impatience. Reading the book now, at forty-nine as opposed to when I was nineteen, its the relationship between the sisters that stands out. Obviously, it’s what brings the ghost back, and also why the story ends as it does. So, while this is a creepy, supernatural thriller on one hand, it’s also a character-driven family drama on the other.
I am planning to read Fire & Hemlock next, because this piece in The Guardian reminded me why I like the book despite really disliking one of the main characters (Thomas Lynn). Maybe this re-reading will change the way I see him.