(Spoilers for “The Lives of Christopher Chant follow below, ‘after the More…’)
Children’s fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones passed away on March 25th of this year, after a year long battle with cancer.
I only recently started reading her books. There’s a blurb on the back of my 20th anniversary edition of Diane Duane’s “So you Want to be a Wizard”, which reads:
“Stands between the works of Diana Wynne Jones, in its wizardry and spells, and those of Madeleine L’Engle, in its scientific concepts and titanic battles between good and evil. An outstanding, original work.” – The Horn Book
Since I love Diane Duane’s books, and have been a fan of L’Engle’s since I was a child, (another great author who we’ve lost in the past few years,) so I looked DWJ up on audible.com, and bought the audiobook copy of “A Charmed Life” made by Recorded Books, a little over two years ago.
By this point, I’ve read all of the Chrestomanci series, and am looking forward to still having many of her books and stories to read fresh. She has a wonderfully vivid imagination for witchcraft and enchantment, but what I still find the most amazing about Diana’s writing is the flair that she had with characters. All of her books seem to be populated with eccentric, flawed, and vivid characters. Many of them are lovable, and some are despicable, but even the bad guys are never caricatures, but complex if devious personalities.
And she almost always manages to surprise and delight me with one moment in each book, often involving her characters. The narration is very good at making me sympathize with the point of view of the central character, which heightens the shock when that character is surprised by the revelation too; whether it be the source of Gwendolyn’s amazing powers in “A Charmed Life”, the true story of Conrad Grant’s karma in “Conrad’s Fate”, the puzzle of the prison dining room in “The magicians of Caprona”, or…
Well, here we get to the spoilers part. If you want to remain unspoiled for one of Diana Wynne Jones’ best books, “The Lives of Christopher Chant”, then you can stop here and go to some other blog on the A-Z challenge – or do your best to scroll down to the bottom and leave a comment without looking.
“The Lives of Christopher Chant” starts with Christopher as a very little boy in a very dysfunctional family, whose only joy is in his nighttime visits to the mysterious ‘Almost Anywheres’; different worlds that very few other people know about. As the book proceeds, he gets a little older, and his Uncle Ralph finds out about the Anywheres, and has him do experiments with leading other people and strange wagons around them. Ralph is a very dangerous smuggler – Christopher doesn’t realize this for most of the book, though I think most readers would actually figure it out more quickly, and that’s not the big surprise.
Christopher’s father finds out that he’s a powerful nine-lived Enchanter, and slated to be the next to hold the post of Chrestomanci, sort of a head policeman and judge over the witches of the world. Christopher isn’t interested in that, as he dreams of being a professional cricket player, but he isn’t able to help being dragged off to Chrestomanci Castle and beginning to study with the staff.
The scene that really surprised me was this. To set it up, Christopher has reported for a lesson with his magic tutor at Chrestomanci castle, but is upset at the fact that Chrestomanci has caught Uncle Ralph’s courier, who Christopher escorted to some other worlds, and he’s worried that the courier might accuse him of being involved in the smuggling ring.
To his surprise, Flavian exploded. “That’s just the kind of damn-fool, frivolous, unfeeling remark you would make!” he cried out. “Of all the halfhearted, toffee-nosed, superior little beggars I’ve ever met, you’re the worst! Sometimes I don’t think you have a soul – just a bundle of worthless lives instead.”
Christopher stared at Flavian’s usually pale face all pink with passion, and tried to protest that he had not meant to be unfeeling… But Flavian, now he had started, seemed quite unable to stop.
“You seem to think,” he shouted, “that those nine lives give you the right to behave like the Lord of Creation! That, or there’s a stone wall around you. If anyone so much as tries to be friendly, all they get is haughty stares, vague looks, or pure damn rudeness! Goodness knows, I’ve tried. Gabriel’s tried. Rosalie’s tried. So have all the maids, and they say you don’t evem notice them! And now you make jokes about poor Mordecai. I’ve had enough! I’m sick of you!”
Chrostopher had no idea that people saw him like this. He was astounded. What’s gone wrong with me? he thought. I’m nice really! When he went to the Anywheres as a small boy, everyone had liked him. Everyone had smiled. Total strangers had given him things. Christopher saw that he had gone on thinking that people only had to see him to like him, and it was only too clear that nobody did. He looked at Flavian, breathing hard and glaring at him. He seemed to have hurt Flavian’s feelings badly. He had not thought Flavian had feelings to hurt…
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Truly sorry.” His voice came out wobbly with shock. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings – not this time anyway – really.”
“Well!” said Flavian. The pink in his face died away. He leaned back in his chair, staring. “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard you say sorry – meaning it, that is. I suppose it’s some kind of breakthrough.”
I remember that when I listened to this passage, I was walking with my headphones in, possibly up to the print store in the bitter cold of January to collect pages to bring to Writer’s circle. And I was nearly as stunned as Christopher himself was. (I guess we share a first name, too.) I hadn’t really noticed him acting rude, or haughty, or ignoring people, though I could see it when I reviewed the book through that mental filter. I had laughed when he’d practiced looking vague, because in ‘A Charmed Life’, Christopher has become Chrestomanci, and he’s very good at looking vague by that point – one of the characters even remarks that when he looks vaguest is when he’s the most dangerous to be around.
It underscores the idea that nobody can ever really be sure how the other people in our lives perceive us, and those of us who are introverted and a bit wrapped up in our own worlds that nobody else really knows how to get into all the more so.