If you haven’t read it yet, if you have not encountered the many worlds of Diana Wynne Jones, I envy you. You have so much to look forward to.
– From Neil Gaiman’s introduction to Charmed Life
Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life is a perfect, magical little fantasy. For a novel written in the late 1970’s and first published in 1977 it is amazingly playful. Just think about it: In 1977, Terry Pratchett’s Colour of Magic was still five years into the future; the first volume of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy, Northern Lights, was eighteen years away; and the first Harry Potter would not be published until two decades later. There can’t be a single fantasy motif, trick, or technique in the canon that Jones does not pull out of her narrative bag of tricks in plotting and telling her charming tale. In the great tradition of English story-telling, Charmed Life is also a whodunit, and a devious, gripping one at that. And I could not help but marvel at how neatly all the strands of the tale were tied-up together at the end. Neil Gaiman writes in his enthusiastic introduction that he “reread the last chapter three times,” and when he “got to the end of the book … turned back to the beginning and started all over again.”
Eric and Gwendolen Chant are siblings who, as the novel opens, have just lost their parents in a ferry-boat accident in Wolvercote, their hometown. We immediately realise that their England is not the same as ours, and is one in which magic is commonplace: so much so that it is part of national policy, though we do not realise this until much later. Gwendolen, the elder of the two, is a witch. Eric, who is known and addressed mostly by his nickname, Cat, is apparently devoid of magical abilities. He adores Gwendolen for who she is, thinks the world of her, and “clings” to her as his only hope in the world.
The town of Wolvercote takes the young orphans under its care and the Mayor sets up a fund for their education and upbringing. Unable to discover any of their relatives, the Mayor agrees to Gwendolen’s suggestion and lets them stay with a neighbour of theirs, Mrs Sharp, who also happens to be a “Certified Witch.” Mrs Sharp realises Gwendolen’s potential as a witch and puts her under the tutelage of Mr Nostrum, a dubious necromancer who lives next door. As payment, he takes something that Mrs Sharp manages to dig out of a box of odds and ends cleared out of the children’s late parents’ bedroom: a set of three letters signed by someone called “Chrestomanci” and addressed to Cat and Gwendolen’s father. Why these letters are of such great value and who Chrestomanci is are not immediately apparent, though it becomes clear that he is a personage of great importance among both magical and non-magical folk. The letters, along with another apparently innocuous item in the box, “a less than half full little red book of matches” with three of the match sticks already burnt, would turn out to be of great significance later in the story.
Under Mr Nostrum’s guidance Gwendolen’s abilities grow prodigiously. She virtually glows with euphoric confidence. However, she becomes more and more proud, callous, and even casually cruel in her attitude towards Cat. On one occasion, she turns his violin into a cat in a fit of anger. As the days pass, Mr Nostrum becomes increasingly persistent in his probing of the relationship between Cat and Gwendolen’s parents and Chrestomanci. He has Gwendolen write to him. In the meanwhile, Cat has a terrifying experience with Miss Larkins, a gifted local clairvoyant, who, in a trance, tells him in an unidentifiable male voice, “There’ll be a big change coming up for you now. But you’ve been awfully careless—four gone already, and only five left. You must take more care. You’re in danger from at least two directions, did you know?” Cat is frightened and puzzled, but unable to make sense of what he had heard.
Soon the flamboyant and enigmatic Chrestomanci himself shows up at Wolvercote and it is decided that the children should come away to Chrestomanci castle to live with him and his family, and continue their education there. Once there Chrestomanci sends Gwendolen into a rage by forbidding her from practising witchcraft in the castle premises without supervision. Worse, she is denied witchcraft lessons. She turns defiant and becomes hell bent on proving herself a witch worthy of being treated with the respect and dignity she deserves. The expressions of her fury grow bolder and bolder, until they start acquiring darker dimensions. Saying a word more would utterly ruin this wonderful and wonder-filled tale. Suffice to say that there is more to every one of the delightful cast of characters that populate Chrestomanci castle—be it Mr Saunders the tutor in his “billow of flapping coat,” Miss Bessemer the housekeeper with her “tall jet-black pile of hair,” Chrestomanci’s sweet-mannered wife, his children Julia and Roger, or Chrestomanci himself with his penchant for flowing, ornate, multi-coloured dressing gowns—than first appearances would betray.
I’ll leave you with a set of tantalising questions that pop up at key moments in the narrative: Why did Gwendolen’s parents suspect her of giving Cat cramps? What is Mr Nostrum’s interest in the Chrestomanci letters? Who is Chrestomanci? What is the significance of the little red book of matches? Why does Gwendolen treat Cat so callously? Who is it that spoke to Cat through Miss Larkins? Why does everyone experience an oddly muffled sense of quietness within Chrestomanci castle? What is the high wall in the garden that has the disorienting quality of turning up right behind you when you could have sworn that you were walking right towards it? What are the dark and disturbing spectres that Gwendolen conjures up? You’ll find that the final chapter fabulously and most satisfactorily resolves all of these puzzles.