“Heather felt as if something tipped with Robert’s hand. It was as if the part of the world that was ordinary and possible went slanting away sideways in a thin sheet.”
I wish that I had read this much earlier, and it isn’t just because I’ve put aside my DWJ reread for much too long. Wild Robert is one of Diana Wynne Jones’ super-short titles that are meant for younger readers, but I think it stands out among the rest of them with its sheer amount of mischief, mayhem and hilarity. It also reads like half of one of her longer titles – literally so, as it ends in a way that made me keep clicking for the next page (I misplaced my physical copy, so I read my digital one instead) wondering if there was something wrong with my ebook. There wasn’t; the story really did leave off kind of hanging, in a way that is both satisfying and not at the same time.
The main character in this book is Heather, a girl who lives in a grand house called Castlemaine, because her parents are its curators. Castlemaine may be an interesting, lovely home, but it’s hard for Heather to think so in the summer, when every morning brings tourists in droves. The tourists trample around the grounds, leaving rubbish behind, and Heather could never find any peace. On one of these days, Heather has nowhere to go but the burial mound that’s rumoured to be the grave of the witch Wild Robert.
Heather makes a wish for Wild Robert to deal with the tourists, not really expecting anything to happen, but of course a handsome young man appears. A reviewer on GoodReads describes Robert as the archetypal romantic idol, and I would agree – if I was reading modern YA, Robert would definitely be nothing more than a romantic interest for Heather. Instead, Robert begins talking about taking over Castlemaine, as he is the only “living” heir, and the two of them march towards the strawberry fields (he hasn’t eaten anything in three centuries, after all), and he demonstrates his magic for the first time.
Throughout the rest of the day, Robert terrorises Castlemaine and the tourists, turning a group of teenagers into fauns and nymphs, an older group into a flock of sheep, and the gardener into a dog. When Heather threatens him, he turns the sheep back into people, and tells her that he wants to speak to her parents about taking back his inheritance. Heather takes him around in circles, and manages to distract him long enough to learn more about his past and his weaknesses.
Wild Robert, while being the antagonist of the story, isn’t a villain. That’s one of the things I like about Diana Wynne Jones’ stories, anyway – her characters are PEOPLE. Perhaps they’re childish, selfish, people, and perhaps they’re bullies and only work out of their own self-interest, and maybe they’re very magical, or not even human, but they’re still just people. And even in a 58-page story like Wild Robert, where it would be easy to make him into this scary, mysterious ghost/witch, Heather instead sympathises with him, and the story ends with her thinking that she would find a way to help him. (I wish that DWJ wrote a sequel or continuation so that I could find out if she eventually did, but I also like the story as it is.)
This slim volume also managed to contain all my favourite DWJ things – a charming but flawed character, the growth of a young girl (who is so perfectly no-nonsense despite all the ghostly magic happening!), mischievous fun, familial betrayal and the accompanying sad feels. Not quite as common in DWJ’s books, but something I enjoyed just as well, are Heather’s parents, who may not be around to entertain her, but are otherwise perfectly ordinary parents… is it weird that I find this worth mentioning, or have I just read too many YA with parents who are absent/dead/too-cool-to-be-true/villainous?
Anyway. I’m throwing all the stars at this book, and now I’m sad because DWJ will never continue this story.
DWJ RE-READ no.35 | this book was first published in 1989
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