This week I’m recommending something  by British author Diana Wynne Jones,  who sadly died last year. It is difficult to choose from her many Fantasy novels for children and adults so I’ve decided to pick one to which I – or rather one of my cats – made a tiny contribution. Years ago, when I had the pleasure of entertaining Diana at my house, my ginger cat stole the salami right out of her sandwich. Diana just laughed and promised to put my `horrible’ cat into a novel, which turned out to be `The Lives of Christopher Chant’. Chronologically, this is the first in a series of novels about the super-cool nine-lived enchanter, Chrestomanci. If you’ve never encountered Chrestomanci before, this story is a good place to start. `The Lives of Christopher Chant’ is available in paperback in most countries and a Kindle edition comes out next month. It is also published with `Charmed Life’ (the earliest of Diane Wynne Jones’ novels to feature Chrestomanci) as `The Chronicles of Chrestomanci Volume One’, which has a very fine ginger cat on the cover.

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci are set in a universe full of series of parallel worlds. Young Christopher Chant lives in a version of Victorian England where magical talent is common but he is keener on playing Cricket than learning magic. His parents are too busy quarrelling (via notes passed by the servants) to notice that Christopher has some very unusual powers. So, when his jovial Uncle Ralph takes an interest in Christopher’s ability to visit other worlds in his sleep and bring back souvenirs, Christopher is flattered. He agrees to help a young man called Tacroy transport rare objects through the misty `Place Between Worlds’.  Asked to fetch a temple cat from the world of Asheth, Christopher meets a girl who is stuck with being worshipped as a Living Goddess but would rather be at an English boarding-school. She agrees to swap her horrible ginger cat, Throgmorten, for novels about boarding school life, but the cat escapes before he can be handed over to Uncle Ralph.

After a series of accidents which should have proved fatal, Christopher is identified as a person born with nine lives, which makes him the strongest kind of magician there is. He is forced to go and live at Chrestomanci Castle and told that he is destined to be the next Chrestomanci, the official whose job it is to make sure that nobody misuses magic.  Christopher hates the grim old man who is the current Chrestomanci and life at the Castle, which seems ` to  combine the worst things about school and home, with a few special awfulnesses of its own.’  Yet when he’s told that his world is being endangered by an evil band of smugglers, Christopher begins to fear that he has sided with the wrong people. Soon he has to deal with treachery, magical attacks, a runaway goddess, a band of temple assassins, and `the most vicious cat in any Anywhere’.

Like most of Diana Wynne Jones’ novels, this is a very funny book. There are witty turns of phrase but the humour lies mainly in the characters and situations. Some lisping mermaids, the irascible vastly fat Dr Pawson, whose fingers remind Christopher of purple bananas, and Millie, the goddess who longs to be an ordinary girl  and `do Prep and eat stodge and learn French and play hockey’  are all delightful creations. No writer has more fun with magical incidents. Christopher accidentally turns his mother’s hair-piece into a rat, blows his tutor’s roof off, gets stuck in a wall so that he feels `like one of the stuffed animal heads on the walls of the Castle dining room’, and helps to defend  the Castle with ten-foot thistles and booby-traps that turn people into caterpillars. The big magical battle in `The Lives of Christopher Chant’ manages to be both exciting and hilarious.  As a bonus, you then get what I think of as `the Wynne Jones twist’ . Just when you think that one of her plots is approaching its natural end, the story veers off in another direction. In this case, Christopher has to journey to another world and bluff some formidable beings into releasing a friend.

In spite of all the humour, Christopher’s psychological and emotional problems are treated seriously. Lonely, unhappy and reserved, Christopher doesn’t realize how intimidating he seems to other people. Diane Wynne Jones created some of the most selfish and badly behaved parents and siblings in all of children’s literature. Her young heroes and heroines are often abandoned or neglected by their parents or exploited and endangered by other close relatives. It is chilling to read on page one of `The Lives of Christopher Chant’ that Christopher `scarcely saw his parents’ and is afraid of not recognizing his own father. Yet adults rule his life without consulting him. Both he and Millie feel `trapped in a life with a future all planned out by someone else – like a long, long, tunnel with no way out!’ Christopher only finds a way out of this tunnel by taking responsibility for his own actions and showing that he has the potential to become a very different kind of Chrestomanci from his predecessors. Christopher finds a new family in the good witches and warlocks of Chrestomanci Castle and anyone who has read `Charmed Life’ will know that he grows up to be the perfect father-figure to everyone who needs him.  Diana Wynne Jones novels are comforting for people with unhappy childhoods who feel like outsiders in their own families. `The Lives of Christopher Chant’ holds out the hope that you don’t have to repeat your parents’s mistakes and that you will find a place where you belong. Until next week…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

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