What a great pleasure it is to read a work of genuinely creative criticism, one that isn't about scoring points against its subject but an act of appreciation and interpretation. Farah Mendlesohn's study of Diana Wynne Jones is a delight to read in itself, and also the kind of critical study that sends one galloping back to the books themselves with new and exciting insights. It doesn't simply reinforce one's initial fondness for the works; it sheds new and stimulating light (and in one or two instances, identifies nuances and subtleties this reader had managed to miss through several re-readings).
Mendlesohn makes a well-substantiated case for the sophistication of Jones's fantastic fiction and in particular for its function as a "sustained metafictional critical response to the fantastic" (p. xiii). She draws attention to the permeability of boundaries that arises when discussing this author: between science fiction and fantasy, between literature-intended-for-younger- and literature-intended-for-older-readers. Her invocation of terms such as remixing, reworking, and translation reminds us that it is possible to write freshly even while "raiding the stock-cupboard" for previously used themes, situations and characters.
As Mendlesohn points out in the introduction, multiple interpretations are possible for any of Jones's books, and many studies could be written about the themes of her work and its different aspects. Mendlesohn has chosen to look not at "what Jones writes about" but "how she writes about what she writes" and to base each of her chapters around a different grouping of texts. While this leads to a certain amount of overlap, it serves to emphasise the richness and depths of the texts in question.
Mendlesohn begins, perhaps counter-intuitively, with a lengthy discussion of Wilkin's Tooth aka Witch's Business, Jones's second (first children's) novel published (although she had already written The Ogre Downstairs and Eight Days of Luke), which does not, she concedes, "quite work." It takes the tropes of the "issue" novel of the 1970s and then gradually transmogrifies the story into one of witchcraft intermingling with an initially mundane-appearing world of racial prejudice, class tensions, and bullying gangs. This, Mendlesohn suggests, was attempting far too complex a task within a relatively brief novel. Her analysis, however, provides useful insights: "the ways in which it does not work are fascinating and herald the emergence of a profoundly self-conscious and critical author" (p. 17).
The next chapter provides a reading of "Agency and Jones's Understanding of Adolescence." Mendlesohn points out how often, in generic fantasy for adult readers as well as children, adulthood is "reduced to a mere matter of power, disengaged from emotional maturity or complexity," and becomes one more plot coupon for the character(s) to accumulate. Jones, however, places the acquisition of agency at the centre: real power comes with the ability to make conscious choices, and this is a process rather than a completed state. It also comes with sometimes painful costs to the characters. Jones resists or subverts the mechanisms of god-games and prophecies: her characters acquire "the ability to both comprehend and challenge apparently rigid structures" (p. 51), as when the characters in The Homeward Bounders cease blindly obeying the dictates of the Game.
Mendlesohn devotes a chapter to exploring the ways in which Jones has deployed "Time-Games" and the rigorous structures that underlie these narratives. She examines Jones's use of different modes of fantasy: the portal (moving from the mundane to the magical world), the immersive (the world of the fantasy is not our world and follows different rules), and the intrusive (the fantastic enters the mundane reality of this world), and the ways in which she subverts the hackneyed tropes to which each particular mode is prone.
In portal fantasies, Mendlesohn argues, it is usually assumed that the protagonist's perception of the world on the other side is correct. But in Jones's works guides can be untrustworthy and the protagonist's interpretation wrong, or at least dangerously limited: "her work continually asks us to consider the reliability of whoever is offering to guide us through the dark woods" (p. 90). Instead of relentless detail, the perspective is impressionistically mediated through the viewpoint character's knowledge and expectations. A similar refusal of the pervasive temptation to overexplanation features in the immersive fantasies: the worlds are "hinted at through what the protagonists find too common to comment on"' and created through "casual remarks and brush strokes" (p. 103). The fantastic is "casualized" and normalized. In her "intrusive" fantasies the mundane world is bizarre or at least problematic even before the advent of the fantastical. There is a striking perception that Jones's fantasies are often about coming home, or at least, happen indoors in some kind of domestic space, rather than being (in the standard Joseph Campbellian heroic-journey model) about going away.
Finally, Mendlesohn considers Jones's abiding "concern with the power of words, the creation of story" and the presence of the writer within the fiction. Her stories are often presented as crafted texts. Choosing the right words, and being the one to shape the story, are of critical importance for her characters. The books are also about reading, and Mendlesohn makes a strong case that they form manuals for the training of critical readers who will not assume the transparency of texts. The complexity of her work, as so well delineated here, is perhaps why Jones has a large and devoted following but has not, so far, become a mega-bestseller in the Rowling category.
There are many other persuasive insights in this study, both into Jones's work in particular and into fantasy, narrative, and reading processes more generally. It is a shame that the price of this work is likely to limit its accessibility to the audience likely to be interested in it: so even if you can't afford it, go and persuade your local library to buy a copy.
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