Reviewed by Lory Widmer Hess
Neil Gaiman and I have at least one thing in common: we both started reading Diana Wynne Jones when we picked up one of her books at age 16 in the children’s department of a local bookshop. And we even started with the same book: Charmed Life, originally published in 1977.
I learned this fun fact by reading Gaiman’s foreword to the new, gloriously bound and illustrated Folio edition, in which he also says “when I finished reading Charmed Life I had a new favourite author.” Same here. Although we both were getting past the age of childhood, we both knew immediately that regardless of where she was shelved in the bookshop, Jones was an author who simply wrote good books, books that children happen to enjoy, not books that only children would want to read. I’m not actually sure there is any other good kind of children’s book, but at any rate, in the good-book category, Jones ranks high on both our lists.
What makes her so good? She’s a master of narrative economy, for one thing, as evidenced by the first paragraph of Charmed Life: “Cat Chant admired his older sister Gwendolen. She was a witch. He admired her and he clung to her. Great changes came about in their lives and left them no one else to cling to.” Jones suggests so much with these four short sentences. Something ordinary — admiring an older sister — is mingled with something odd, something magical — Gwendolen is a witch? Stated as blandly as “She was tall” or “She had blonde hair”? And then there’s the hint of something out of whack, of an unresolved power balance that will need to be worked through, somehow.
Immediately, we want to know more about Cat and Gwendolen, what the great changes were, whether Cat ever stopped clinging, and above all, what was going on with Gwendolen’s witchcraft. We soon find out, as we are drawn into a world where magic is quite an everyday thing, a field of study and work like music or finance, yet can also be extraordinarily dangerous. Cat is in great danger, we slowly discover, and clinging to his sister will not save him.
Jones narrates it all in the same dry, deadpan way, completely without sentimentality, and yet with a constantly bubbling sense of humor, along with a strong sense of warmth and sympathy for her protagonist. We soon come to share in that feeling, to root for Cat and want him to come into his own in this world of magic and danger. His story comes to feel like our story, as perhaps it is, if we have ever been tempted to become a hazard to ourselves and others through not knowing our own strength.
I am not going to say much more about the book, because it’s far better to just pick it up and start reading, as Neil Gaiman and I did. If you are going to enjoy it, you will know right away from the first page. If you acquire the Folio edition, please be advised to skip the front matter (there is a lovely introduction by Katherine Rundell that unfortunately contains a major spoiler) and head straight to Chapter One.
I do hope you will pick it up, because this is a fabulous edition and I want Folio to do more of them. The six full-page illustrations by Alison Bryant have a vintage flavor, reminding me slightly of Hilary Knight; they’re energetically drawn and vividly colored to portray imperious Gwendolen, self-effacing Cat, and their magical adventures. A full-color wraparound cover design, silver- printed slipcase and endpapers, and black and white vignettes at the head of each chapter round out the presentation in great style. I only wish that Folio could have sprung for unique chapter headings, rather than a mere five
designs that repeat in later chapters. Given the lavishness of the rest, this is a sort of economy that makes no sense to me. However, we do get two related short stories at the end as a bonus, so perhaps that evens out.
Charmed Life is the first volume of a sort-of-series — Jones seldom wrote true sequential series, but this is the first book to feature the recurring character of Chrestomanci. “Chrestomanci” is not a name, but a title, given to a powerful enchanter whose task is to make sure that ordinary people are not completely oppressed by the ones with magic. And the Chrestomanci of these books is an impressive, powerful character indeed, initially a bit frightening. But he is also powerfully human, with a backstory of his own that we get to learn about in one of the later books, The Lives of Christopher Chant. And he is, very definitely, a force for good.
Cat distrusts Chrestomanci to begin with, but as he comes into his own powers he starts to discover that appearances can be deceptive. He needs to learn how to strengthen his faculty of discernment, to see for himself what is good and evil, rather than cling to anyone, or reject them out of hand. And in Charmed Life we get to learn along with him, through an irresistibly magical, funny, surprising, heartwarming tale. What more could one wish for?
There are six Chrestomanci books altogether, all different, all enchanting and wonderful and full of surprises. I devoutly hope there will be more of these Folio editions in store; but even if not, you know what to put on your holiday shopping list right now.
Lory Widmer Hess is an American reader and writer currently living in Switzerland. She blogs about life, language, and literature at enterenchanted.com.
The Folio Society’s edition of Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life, introduced by Katherine Rundell, Foreword by Neil Gaiman, and illustrated by Alison Bryant is exclusively available from foliosociety.com