And so, my re-read enters that grim period – in which the next three novels I’m tackling (With a short story in between) are The Time of the Ghost, The Homeward Bounders, and Witch Week. All books I love, or have come to love, but also books that I’ve struggled with because either I had found them a bit dark (The Time of the Ghost, Witch Week), or found the ending unsettling (The Time of the Ghost, The Homeward Bounders).
This week’s book, The Time of the Ghost, is probably her creepiest book, and reads to me as more of a horror novel than a fantasy. This is my third read, and if it wasn’t for the fact that my second reading was almost exactly a year ago, it probably would have felt like reading it anew. The narrator starts out as this nameless, bodiless being who guesses that she is the ghost of one of four Melford sisters, but she doesn’t know which. And of course she doesn’t know why she’s a ghost, and how she got that way, so this is also a mystery. That’s two genres I hardly read. And yet I find this book so hard to put down!
It gets creepier as the ghost details the Worship of Monigan, exactly the sort of game that I liked to play when I was little, became more and more real as Monigan – an old mouldy rag doll of the girls – somehow becomes possessed by a sinister being. Some of the scenes involving blood and sacrificing to Monigan are rather dark, but there’s also the real-life horror of the girls’ home life. Their parents run a school for boys, and while they’re busy with the students, the girls are very neglected. Sometimes they never get food and there’s a scene in which one of the sisters almost hung herself by accident. I read in Reflections that The Time of the Ghost is Diana’s most autobiographical book, and that some of the things that had really happened to the Jones sisters had to be toned down or taken out of the book to make it more believable. And the thing is, while everyone I’ve talked to about this book (that haven’t read it themselves) are horrified by the parents depicted, this is the one thing that feels just right to me. So – to reaffirm the thing I mentioned in my Charmed Life review – yes, one of the things that draw me to Diana’s books is the way she writes about horrible families, the way she treats the subject of neglect/abuse. It’s also the thing that drew me to Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, come to think about it.
That is not to say that this book is grim/dark all the way. It’s a Diana Wynne Jones, after all; there are some hilarious bits, which are mostly things to do with the sisters. Fenella is probably one of my favourite female characters, if I can ever be trusted to keep track of all my favourites. I love the interactions between the sisters, from normal conversations to their quarrels, it rings so true and it’s all just so PERFECT, it’s exactly what having sisters/being a sister is like. I guess it’s because Diana has sisters, and that she puts a lot of them in this book. There’s also this twist in the plot near the end that I had a general inkling about (despite having read it twice before, all I can remember before this reread is that something big and spoilery happens) that still defeats me, and another thing at the very end that I had either forgotten or not noticed, but now I remember/notice and it made me very glad that I had the sense not to read it before falling asleep. Especially with so many Blythe dolls in the house.