Like so many others, I am still mourning the loss of Diana Wynne Jones. But though there will be no new books to look forward to, I still take comfort from the sight of her books on the shelves next to my bed, because, more than almost any other author I know, Diana Wynne Jones rewards re-reading.
I've been re-reading The Spellcoats now for thirty years...9th grade, it was, when I first met it. That copy fell apart long ago. I still vividly remember reading it the first time--swept up by the story of a family's escape down a flooded river that took them into the heart of a horrible magic, I didn't mind that my understanding of just what the heck was happening was, at times, shaky. (I also tried not to look at the cover much. Mr. Cloud offended my aesthetic sensibilities). Hexwood took me three times through to figure out, and I still have hope that if I re-read Fire and Hemlock often enough, the ending will make sense to me!
Indeed, it seems to me as though Calcifer's words in Howl's Moving Castle apply perfectly to DWJ--"If I give you a hint, and tell you it's a hint, it will be information." Like all (?) re-readers, I take comfort in knowing where the hints are, so the second (or third, or fourth) time through her books is often more enjoyable than the first! I also am an end-reader, but, in general, reading the end of a DWJ first doesn't help (hint-wise) in the least.
I have the sense that the stories were so complicatedly vivid in Diana's imagination that words are barely enough to hold them. The reader is challenged to surrender herself to the flow, trusting that what is completely baffling will someday make sense. I remember having this same feeling with many books I read as a child--that I was going into new places, rich and strange, and that understanding in a logical way wasn't the point--the stories and their characters were, and I was privileged to go forth and meet them. To have that same feeling as a grown-up reader is rare indeed.
I'm re-reading The Merlin Conspiracy right now. When it came out in 2003, I had a new born baby, so wasn't, in general, thinking that clearly, and I never seem to have found the time to pick it up again. Though I have a sense of how things play out (or perhaps because of this), I'm finding it utterly satisfying to re-read. In the first forty pages, the reader is plunged into a strangely magical, alternate Britain (with at most two sentences of an explanatory sort), whisked to our world (where we get to meet Nick from Deep Secret), and then tossed into a totally unexpected cricket match in an alternate France, where Nick (among other things) meets a magical panther. It's not one I'd recommend as anyone's first Diana Wynne Jones (because it really helps to have read Deep Secret), but as a re-read, it is great! I'm sure I'll understand it much better this time around.
Even her most recent book, Earwig and the Witch (my review), written for younger children than me (!), give the sense of being a glimpse into a larger world of story beyond the book, one that the reader, along with Earwig, is only beginning to comprehend.
Obviously, some books are easier to understand first time through than others. For those who have never met Diana, I'd suggest starting with Howl's Moving Castle, or perhaps Charmed Life. Both are fun and complicated, but not dauntingly so. (I wouldn't recommend starting with Spellcoats, as I did, because when you find out it's the third of a series, and read the first two books, you might be crushed that they aren't about the same characters).
If you will excuse a tortured metaphor, and not even an original one, to me her books are like the stars--bright holes punched through the darkness, promising that there is more Story out there. I wish she'd had time to punch a few more holes for us, but I sure am happy with what I have. And they are going with me to the nursing home, if that fate befalls me--she will be just what I will need to keep my mind sharp, and forty years from now, I'll have re-read them all so many times that all the hints will be old friends.
It looks like I'll be adding to my shelf--Firebird has released reissues of Dogsbody (with intro. by Neil Gaiman, A Tale of Time City, with intro. by Ursula Le Guin, and Fire and Hemlock, with intro. by Garth Nix. The latter also features the essay "The Heroic Ideal," which DWJ wrote about the writing of F&H.
This post was written as part of a DWJ appreciation blog tour; here's the list of stops on the tour, and you can find all the appreciations here.