Posted at Global Comment a few weeks ago.
Three Diana Wynne Jones books have been published since the author’s death in 2011, and I have bought each and mourned a little anew. There’s something particularly final, though, about The Islands of Chaldea, the author’s unfinished last book which has now been completed by her younger sister.
The titular Islands of Chaldea number four, all suspiciously reminiscent of the countries and topography and national clichés that make up the British Isles (the Wales equivalent is also a bit Mediterranean, presumably because Britain doesn’t offer enough diversity). Years before this story opens, the inhabitants of the island of Logra kidnapped the prince of all the islands and erected a magical wall between their own island and the others, with unfortunate trade and climate effects. Years of attempts to break the barrier have failed, until a prophecy that a Wise Woman of Skarr, travelling with a man from each of the islands, will be the one to bring it down. Aileen, our narrator and protagonist, travels through the islands with her aunt Beck (who doesnotlike being called a witch) a prince of Skarr, a priest from Bernica, and an awkward young Logran who was abandoned on the island of Skarr when the wall came up. Also on the journey are a disappearing cat and a wise parrot; and Moe the donkey, who doesn’t appear to have any supernatural powers.
In most ways, this is a classic quest novel. A band of companions, subjects of prophecy, travel through often-hostile terrain and face great danger, meet new companions on the way, eventually save the world. One of the best things about Diana Wynne Jones, though, has always been the use she makes of the reader’s knowledge of the genre. It’s more in evidence in her books for older readers but even here it works to transform what is often a generic plot to something that feels fresh. This is in large part due to Aileen’s voice, which treats the sublime and the ridiculous with the same matter-of-fact resignation. “Porridge is my Aunt Beck’s answer to everything,” she begins her story, and as ever it’s the simplest lines that are the most effective. “The next day, when we stopped for lunch, we were mobbed by donkeys”.
Aileen’s own romance is treated with the same prosaic quality. We know from the beginning that the young man she has set her sights on (“Although he doesn’t know it yet, I have chosen him to be my husband when the time comes and, until then, I feel free to admire him greatly in secret.”) is unworthy, and we are aware throughout of his deviation from the pattern of romantic hero.
It’s classically Diana Wynne Jones in other ways as well. Family is a source of both strength and pain in Jones’ books; family members are often genuinely villainous, sometimes (merely!) cruelly neglectful, and their failures to look after our child protagonists are treated as a matter of course. The Islands of Chaldea signals at least one of its villainous relatives disappointingly clearly, and it’s tempting to think that had Jones been able to complete her book she would have tempered things with less figurative moustache-twirling. Yet we’re also presented, in passing, with the grandmother who raised Aileen’s mother and aunt and forbade them dancing and music; with Aileen’s own mother, whose romantic tastes are both suspect and inconvenient for her child, and who is never reproached by the book or its characters for being a grown woman with priorities of her own.
And family, and community, and friendship, can provide strength and succour as well; the long line of Wise (and irascible, though that’s not in the title) Women of which Aileen is the youngest, generations of knowledge and tradition behind her. The Queen of the fairy-folk who instantly recognises Aileen for what she is, suggesting a world full of strong women who know and respect each other, even if that respect does not necessarily translate into liking. On her father’s side of the family Aileen finds a whole community of cousins and extended family. Aileen’s own quest is at least partly for her father, and if her feelings for him are rarely expressed, we’re never in any doubt that they’re there. And there’s the Lone Cat, which can turn invisible at will and is both powerful and comically ugly—it attaches itself to the party, and frequently we see Aileen reaching out to it for comfort that is given.
It’s tempting to treat this book as a sort of puzzle, and to try and work out which parts of it are Ursula and which Diana. In her afterword, Ursula Jones explains that her sister did not leave notes or discuss her work in progress, and that she tended to write stories in a linear fashion; the implication is that there is a single moment in the narrative before which everything is Diana’s and after which everything is Ursula trying to channel Diana. She also claims that no one has yet been able to spot the exact moment unprompted. It almost reads like a challenge, and if it is it’s a brave one to throw out to fans of her sister’s work. My own instinct is to attribute everything I like about the book to Diana Wynne Jones, turn a great author into an infallible one. It’s probably untrue and unfair to her sister. Yet to me the later sections of the book are among its weakest. Somewhere in the island of Bernica things begin to get a little slack, and the Logra sequences are oddly paced. Things fall into place in ways that are more predictable than one might like, and everyone is happy and important and of sufficiently noble birth.
But then we come to the final paragraphs of the story, which must be Ursula Jones’ work. We are introduced to an older Aileen, looking back at past events and pondering the changes which they brought. The book ends with an image of the adult Aileen occasionally sailing to visit the Lone Cat on his island. “I hear his cry from above me, and the Lone Cat, the ugliest cat I ever beheld, bounds gladly from pillar to pillar towards me. We stay a while with each other, then part.” It’s not entirely structurally sound—this older, wiser narrator has never been hinted at earlier in the book—but she knows as we do that things can’t always stay the same, that sometimes there are unavoidable reasons to be separated from the people we love, that life goes on.
Ursula Jones’ afterword to the book is beautiful, reminiscing about bedtime stories that were made up in parts, night by night, and read out up to the point where a young Diana had stopped writing. “It always duly turned up the next night, which is where the present day diverged so unhappily from our childhood past. This time, the next section couldn’t turn up. Her book had ended without an ending.” It’s rather a horrifying image, the unfinished story like an open wound.
When I heard of Diana Wynne Jones’ death in 2011 I immediately reached for one of her knottiest books, the flawed and brilliant Fire and Hemlock, and stayed up all night to read it in tribute. There’s nothing particularly knotty (or particularly brilliant) about The Islands of Chaldea. But whether it emanates from the author, her sister, or is something I’ve brought to the book myself, the whole thing seems to me to be infused with love and generosity. It begins with porridge and ends with bittersweet parting, and if it’s not the best thing either of its authors has written it is exactly what I needed it to be.