I’ve come to the conclusion with children’s literature that the books you read at just the right time in your development as a reader are the ones that really stay with you. I recently saw an article in the Telegraph ( I think) on children’s fiction where the writer (not sure who… sorry) had picked out 10 Books every child should read. I had heard of Diana Wynne Jones but not of this book which was claimed to be a novel suffused with magic and superior to Harry Potter. My interest was piqued, especially as this is a book which dates from the mid 70’s and so I sought out a copy. (My library service had it available as an E-book). I think the author of the article (which could have been Lucy Mangan who has just produced a book on children’s fiction which Netgalley have just approved me for review, so if it is I’ll let you know) must have read this book at an impressionable age as given the build-up this was all a little disappointing for me.
This is the first of seven volumes in the Chrestomanci series. In this book Chrestomanci is an enigmatic Willie Wonka type character, who may be an enchanter of great power and who certainly has the habit of turning up as soon as his name is said. He takes on the upbringing of two charges, Gwendolen and Cat, after their parents are killed and the children go to live at Chrestomanci Castle with his own two offspring. Gwendolen has precocious powers of witchcraft and thinks very highly of herself; her younger brother Cat struggles with self-doubt and is the endearing central character. It is a tale of magic and parallel worlds as the children come to terms with their new lives in the Castle.
Books for children of this vintage and older do not seem as plot-driven as modern fiction and once the children are in ensconced in their new home the pace gets a little slow and there are quite a few scenes which ramble a little and are not especially eventful, particularly meal times between the four children, who do not see eye to eye. It is, however, quite entertaining throughout and may appeal to those who have got through the first couple of Harry Potter novels and are not yet ready for the demands the later instalments of the series place on the reader, but I do feel that many Potter fans will find Jones’ style dated.
Diana Wynne Jones was a prolific writer who died in 2011. She is most revered for her Chrestomanci novels (I still don’t know why I have not heard of these before) and “Howl’s Moving Castle”. “Charmed Life” was the winner of the 1978 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. She is held in great esteem by many fantasy writers for both her children’s and adult novels. She did suggest that the 4th book of the series, the Carnegie Medal commended “The Lives Of Christopher Chant” (1988) be read as the follow-up to this. I would be interested to see where she goes with the characters she introduces in this series opener. This book alone does not attain the status of children’s classic as far as I am concerned, but as a whole the series may still have potential.
Charmed Life was originally published by Macmillan in 1977. I read the Harper Collins edition which was republished in 2007.