It had to happen. I’ve had a lucky run of excellent reads recently and, when I’ve dipped my toe in unfamiliar literary waters, I’ve invariably been rewarded with the discovery of a new favourite author or the prospect of a rich back catalogue to work my way through.
This is what led me towards Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones; the reviews were consistently impressive, often spectacularly so (it is said that JK Rowling may have leant on this and the subsequent books in the Chrestomanci series when writing the Harry Potter books). But here, my lucky run came to an end – I found Charmed Life hard-going and deeply disappointing.
Some of this, of course, is about my personal palate. Fantasy books tend not to be my favourite; they are not the first books I reach for. So in that sense Charmed Life was facing an uphill battle from the first page. Equally, I can still appreciate quality in the fantasy field, without necessarily wanting to fill my Desert Island bookshelves with witches, wizards and warlocks.
But I found Gwendolen and Cat, the magic-endowed brother and sister, hard to connect with. They were generally dislikeable; Gwendolen mostly tyrannical and Cat mostly wet. The mysterious Chrestomanci had the odd engaging quirk (his ever-changing flow of dressing gowns was quite amusing), but was malevolent in a way that did little to draw me in or make me feel like he was a character I wanted to know better.
In some of the more dramatic scenes, there was a flippancy which I found almost disturbing. At one point, at the behest of Chrestomanci, Gwendolen is punished for using magic. She is ‘yanked to her feet’ by Mr Saunders, who proceeds to beat her with the sole of his boot while she is ‘face down over his knee’. Chrestomanci urges Mr Saunders to ‘carry on’. There is a darkness in these lines – grown men assaulting a young girl – and I didn’t like reading them; it scarred the rest of the book.
In the author’s notes at the back of the book, it’s interest to note that the book was written in a couple of weeks. It reads that way, like a great splurge of thoughts and ideas and scenes and characters, all rattled off at a tremendous speed. Maybe that is what some people are drawn to and perhaps I’ve missed something amidst the frantic blur of events; but this one is not for me.