Evening Standard review of "Conrad's Fate"

Gili Bar-Hillel gbhillel at netvision.net.il
Sun Apr 3 07:34:04 EDT 2005

For the benefit of those of you who don't get the Evening Standard, here's
their recent rave review of "Conrad's Fate". I found the Evening Standard
website impossible to navigate, and couldn't find anything remotely related
to books so as to even begin to find out whether this review is archived
online. Luckily, my aunt happens to write for the Standard, and was kind
enough to forward this to me:

WORDS:  758
HEAD  A masterclass in pell-mell fantasy
STORY  2 of 3

 Conrad's Fate by Diana Wynne Jones (HarperCollins, £12.99)
 THERE'S such a thing as unfair good luck - unfair not because the lucky
person doesn't deserve their luck, but because they deserve something less
random. Diana Wynne Jones's children's books are all back in print, and her
new novels are getting the star treatment, because Harry Potter has made
publishers keen to sell all the seemingly similar stuff they can to the
impatient hordes waiting for the next scheduled train to Hogwarts.

 That's good, but unfair. Her books ought to be ranked on the shop shelves
bright new jackets, and she ought to be crowned with coloured garlands,
because she is the best writer of magical fantasy for children in this

 She doesn't write some sort of pleasing variant on J K Rowling. J K
writes a variant on her - or rather, a variant on one small part of her

 For 30 years she has been turning out books so inventive that each of them
more or less rethinks the fantastical from scratch, and comes up with a new
purpose for it.

 Changing varieties of the funny and the uncanny flow from her keyboard in
mingled streams. She came up with the idea of the magical school story back
in the early 1980s, played with it, fitted it into a sequence which also
included a magical version of Romeo and Juliet and a backwards Gothic
featuring a villainous young girl in a vulnerable castle - and then went on
to invent another thing or 20.

 With any luck, or rather with any justice, the film due soon of her Howl's
Moving Castle from Hayao Miyazaki, maker of Spirited Away, should give her
some wholly independent global fame.

 The kind of book she is interested in writing changes so mercurially that
her work is hard to categorise, but there are also constants which make it
unmistakeable, which make her fanaticalreaders know from the first page
the item in their hands is the product of her imagination, and no possible

 The most important of these constants is the mood of her books. In a
perceptive study due out soon, the critic Farah Mendlesohn calls her an
author of "screwball fantasy", and that seems about right.

 Every one of her books is written with a delight in helter-skelter verbal
play and in pell-mell incident-piling insanity that does very much resemble
the screwball film comedy of Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday.

   The books may start slow, but they always speed up to a sort of cheerful
kinetic frenzy, off-balance but still just under control.

 This new novel, Conrad's Fate, is no exception. It starts in a quiet
bookshop in a quiet town high in the English Alps (don't ask), but proceeds
swiftly to become a below-stairs comedy of intrigue, set in a vast stately
home on an unstable magical faultline, with an enormous scurrying chorus of
footmen, underfootmen and laundry maids.

 It's not surprising that Chrestomanci, the hero of this particular series
stories, a conceited, imperturbable, exquisitely-dressed magical
is just the sort of person who keeps their head while all around are madly
losing theirs. Even as a teenager, which he is here, he has the poise of a
Fred Astaire or a Cary Grant.

 Another constant is the horribleness of many parents in the Diana Wynne
Jones universe. Whereas in J K Rowling, Harry's real parents are safely
lovely (and dead), and the Dursleys are fairytale villains, bad because
they're bad, in these books there are no relieving screens of
step-parenthood, and the adults are nasty because they regard the child as
interruption to their absorption in themselves.

 Jones has a skewering eye for the varieties of adult selfishness. Her
gallery of bad mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles all exploit, neglect and
casually undermine their offspring.

   Strangely, the effect is rather comforting. It makes the solutions her
child characters arrive at seem that much more thoroughly their own doing.

 But then, as a way of letting children try out experimental versions of
reality, fantasy can do a lot of things.

   And a lot of the things fantasy can do, Diana Wynne Jones does.

 If you know her books already, you'll gleefully swallow Conrad's Fate as
another unpredictable dose of animal spirits. If you're encountering her
imagination for the first time, though, I'd start by buying The Lives of
Christopher Chant or The Magicians of Caprona, luckily available in all


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