I’ve never read Diana Wynne Jones before. I know!
Another ride to the cabin, another audiobook. I’ve discovered the young adult section, which is better suited to listening while driving. The length coincides with the time it takes to drive up and back, and it’s just lighter thematically so I won’t concentrate too hard and drive off the road. The reader for the audiobook had an accent that bugged me at first, but I eventually got over it because I liked how she said the word “logs”. Plus, you just get used to accents after a while. I loved the way she read Howl with one of those drawling, lazy-sounding Welsh accents that I wish I could imitate but can’t.
This is the story of an eldest sister – my favorite kind, for purely selfish reasons – who is cursed by a witch to become an old woman. Sophie sets out not to make her fortune – she knows, the way the bookish young do, that the eldest sister is doomed to be a cautionary tale in the stories of younger sisters. The story trades in the parallelisms and structures of a fairy tale, but loosely so – for example, she meets three creatures on the road on the way to Howl’s castle – a man, a scarecrow, and a dog – and while you expect certain things from these interactions – here comes the clobbering plot – the actualities end up being…stranger than the expectations.
Sophie ends up in the employ of the wizard Howl – roughly; it is more that she pushes her way in and refuses to leave – and the story is mostly the domestic happenings of Howl and Sophie’s families and familiars. The characters all continue the theme of expectations not conforming to reality – Howl is a clothes horse and shirker, in addition to being a competent and feared wizard; Calcifer is a fire demon, and also something sweeter and lightly tragic. Sophie’s sisters enact a plot that owes something to The Importance of Being Earnest with its doubling and trebling of Letties and mistaken identities, which I found charming and not horrifyingly sit-com-like. (And probably without a gay subtext, but I didn’t give it much thought.)
I wasn’t enamored of the ending, which takes all these sprawling threads that have been weaving in and out around each other without much urgency and ties them in a slip knock and ends. I complained to Richard about this a little, and he quoted a nursery rhyme at me:
Ride a cockhorse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine woman upon a white horse.
With rings on her fingers and bell on her toes,
Ahhh! There she goes!
My parents always went with the more traditional ending line of, “and she will have music wherever she goes”, but his folks would recite this while giving a horsey ride to the child on their laps, at the end of which the seat would be rescinded and the child dumped onto the floor. (But, you know, in a nice way – the kid knowing this was coming and grinning madly before the end.) And when the bridge bended, the story was ended! I take his meaning: this story is more about the journey than the destination, and grumbling too loudly about endings doesn’t really credit the ongoingness of the story, even at the supposed end.
Lastly, I was hugely fond of old-yet-young Sophie. I went to a wedding of some youngens this weekend – people a dozen or more years my junior – and was struck by how earnest these young people were, how incredibly serious. I don’t mean they are joyless or anything – and they seem a very happy couple – just that they are so serious about their adulthoods. There was this conversation at one point about subjects not fit for young adult book reviews, and the groom expounded some opinions that made most of us smug marrieds, including some eavesdropping women, laugh until we almost barfed. He looked a little abashed, but earnestly so, and will not be softening his youthful opinion, I’m sure, until he has any experience at all to measure against his carefully theoretical knowledge.
I remember being like this – not in terms of opinions held, because lol – but believing things in this manner, believing in the inevitability of narratives, the trajectory of story. I mean, I’m probably still believing things like this, and my folks are busy laughing themselves sick about some opinion I’ve espoused about being older. So Sophie in her old skin because she’s bought the line about eldest sisters not amounting to anything, because she is squandering her youth on being responsible in a way that serves no one but an ideal, that was lovely. And it gave me licence to steal some glasses from the reception, because you’re only young once, even if you aren’t that young anymore. And being not that young anymore is liberating as all get out.