No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, March 19, 2021

2021/036: The Time of the Ghost -- Diana Wynne Jones [reread]

“We may call it Monigan and think it’s a game, but I don’t think it is. I know there really is a dark old female Something, and whatever it is we’ve woken it up and brought it stalking closer. And we mustn’t go on. It’s not safe.” [loc. 1464]

Reread: I can't remember the last time I read this novel, and it's not one of my favourite works by Diana Wynne Jones, but I recalled the queasy, panicky feeling, and the ghost-speaking. I'd forgotten enough that the twists of plot -- and especially the ghost's identity -- were fresh and surprising.

The ghost spends a lot of time working out who she is and trying to reconstruct the elements of her life. She's one of four sisters, who are left more or less to their own devices while their parents run a school. I was quite shocked by just how unpleasant their father ('Himself') is; he calls his daughters 'bitches', refuses them money for essentials, can't remember their names, and almost definitely hits them. (His wife, Phyllis, is sweet but ineffectual, though she does come into her own later in the book. On the whole, though, she's as neglectful as their father, though in a less brutal way.) This is worthy of comment because when I first read the book -- probably some time in the 1980s -- I think I regarded Himself's behaviour as fairly normal: not common or usual, by any means, but on the bell-curve of parental styles. This is certainly not how I read it now.

Appalling parenting aside, this is a dark story about 'inventing' the worship of a made-up deity, which turns out not to be invented at all, and which is accustomed to sacrifice. Whoever the ghost is -- and for a long time she can't be sure which of the sisters she is, or was -- she owes a debt, and it's being called in ...But the Melford sisters, however much they squabble and rage among themselves, are a force to be reckoned with, both in the 'now' of the ghost, and the time seven years later when the debt falls due. (The sisters are much nicer people as adults. I blame the parents.)

As usual for DWJ, there are lots of excellent characters, not only the sisters but the boys at the school; there are echoes of a mythic past debased into folklore and superstition; and there is a loveable animal -- Oliver, the dog, who can sense the ghost.

The Time of the Ghost ends abruptly, perhaps too abruptly: there is closure, but there's no sense of anything getting back to normal, or of what the ghost might do next now that she's learnt a few things about herself. Still, this is one of Diana Wynne Jones' more unsettling novels, and a sweet light epilogue wouldn't suit the mood.

No comments:

Post a Comment