Diana Wynne Jones is made of awesome and The Time of the Ghost is yet another great novel.
Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smugglers feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
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Title: The Time of the Ghost
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Genre: Children-Young Adult, Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication date: First published in 1981
Paperback: 224 Pages
There’s been an accident!
She doesn’t know who she is, and doesn’t know why she’s invisibly floating through the buildings and grounds of a half-remembered boarding school.
Then, to her horror, she encounters the ancient evil that four peculiar sisters have unwittingly woken — and learns she is their only hope against a deadly danger.
Standalone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Print
There’s been an accident, thinks the ghost the moment it becomes conscious. There are no other details she (at least she is pretty sure she is a she) can remember but she does know something is very wrong and that time is ticking.
Invisible, disembodied, the ghost finds herself floating around the grounds of a boarding school for boys and the house attached to it where she lives with her sisters. But she doesn’t know which sister she is: sentimental Sally? Career-oriented Imogen? Overwrought Cart? Eccentric Fenella? It’s difficult to tell. She then stumbles upon a doll and a makeshift altar and the word Monigan comes to her and as the hours pass, the ghost becomes increasingly certain that she must find a way to communicate with the sisters, before an evil older than history takes her life.
The Time of the Ghost is a revelation both as a Diana Wynne Jones book and as a children’s novel. Used as I am to DWJ’s mastery, I was still awed by The Time of the Ghost’s carefully built structure: with a memory-less unreliable narrator as foundation, the story progresses back and forth in time (without spoiling too much there is an element of timeslip here) with a slow crescendo toward a climax that is somewhat abrupt but ultimately satisfying and even, brilliant. The lack of any certainty with regards to the ghost’s real identity never detracts from character-building. In fact, even though we don’t know which sister the ghost is until the very ending, we still know a lot about each sister and who they are now and then. For such a short novel, that morphed characterisation across time is remarkable and beautifully folded into what the story is all about.
Because in spite of the horror and the sense of fear surrounding the ghost, the figure of Monigan and their joint fate, I would not say that the The Time of the Ghost is a horror novel in the strictest sense of the world. Scarier and darker than anything fantastical in the novel are its non-fantasy elements, everything that concerns the day to day life of the sisters, their parents and the boys who attend the school.
And this is where the novel becomes super ultra dark. But it’s a darkness that is mostly inferred, alluded to in passing and often hand-waved by the ghost until she is forced to confront the past.
It’s obvious as you read, that these kids – these children – are horribly neglected. They live in squalor, with no food, no proper clothing or heating. They barely see their parents who are more concerned with the lives of the boys they teach – and here there is an element of internalised misogyny that is hard to scape notice. The father, referred simply as “Himself” is aggressive and contemptuous toward his daughters and often addresses them as “little bitches” unless they have company. The story’s main set up, we come to learn very soon, is part of the daughters’ Plan to be “noticed” and they go to great lengths for that to happen to no success.
The effect of this neglect is felt by the children in a myriad of ways and fuels their misbehaving and ultimately, their shadiest pursuits. The novel shows neglected, abused, bored children playing up in horrifying ways: there is a scene with blood sacrifice that is equally disturbing and fascinating in showing how little children are attracted to danger, spellbound by rule-breaking. There is no sugar coating here and it was painful to hear afterward that the family here is meant to be based on Diana Wynne Jones’ own childhood. Holy crap.
Needless to say, this is yet another DWJ for the keeper shelf.
Rating: 8 – Excellent
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