Fellow literary blogger, tweeter and teacher Ben Harris recently expressed slight dismay at Diana Wynne Jones’ ‘difficult’ novel The Homeward Bounders, first published in 1981 early on in her writing career.
Coincidentally I had been ruminating about which DWJ book to read (or, rather, reread, as bar a handful of titles I’ve read virtually all her works) for Kristen’s annual blogging event March Magics. This novel, then, seemed as good a book to tackle as it’s one of a few of her titles I haven’t yet reviewed.
So this post is by way of an introduction to a second reading, a post in which I’ll mostly be making use of clues from Jones’ own words. These will be from the collection of her non-fiction writings in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (David Fickling Books / Greenwillow Books 2012) published the year after her death on 26th March 2011.
At the start of the novel Jamie Hamilton stumbles across a group of cloaked figures involved in a game, one which he finds involves playing with human lives. In consequence of this discovery he is banished to the boundaries of worlds, exiled there forever unless he can work out a way Home — in other words, become homeward bound. Until then he is a discard, a Random Factor.
Or so he is told.
Now, in ‘Two Kinds of Writing’ Jones described an incident during a book signing when
a mother came in with her nine-year-old son and berated me for making The Homeward Bounders so difficult. So I turned to the boy to ask him what he didn’t understand. “Oh, don’t listen to her,” he said. “I understood everything. It was just her that didn’t.”
Jones’ comment, which encapsulates what the subject of the piece was about, was that ‘his poor mother had given up using her brain when she read.’ Unlike children, who don’t need things easy in their fiction, adults need authors to write ‘as if the readers were simpleminded.’ Worse, some adults seem to think kids lit mustn’t be difficult …
So it’s clear that Jones was aware that there might be an imaginative divide between adults and children, in some cases a very wide and deep chasm.
Elsewhere, in a piece entitled ‘A Talk About Rules’ she railed against Rules and Genres, because some critics made the mistake that there are absolute rules about writing, and impenetrable boundaries between genres. ‘The whole thing is back to front,’ she asserted — this was clearly the tail wagging the dog — hence the curious common belief that children’s fiction must be confined within genre expectations and conform to limiting rules. However, even though ‘the story is the important thing […] what people have found in previous stories are being used to govern what should be in future ones. And this is ridiculous.’
And then she went on to quote what Prometheus said in The Homeward Bounders:
There are no rules. There are no rules, only principles and natural laws.
In this memoir we also find out from her grown-up son Colin Burrow (‘Two Family Views of Diana and Her Work’) where much of the darkness in novels like this is likely to come from. ‘Her books are profoundly serious despite the jokes,’ he wrote. ‘They are quite consistently driven by rage against unfairness. […] She hated exploiters, people who tried to suck the magic and vitality from others.’ He notes that such fiction about alternative worlds can be ‘partly about politics’, a politics however of the spirit rather than Mundane matters: her books rebelled against whoever or whatever made ‘people ordinary and grey when they could be imaginative and alive.’
As a result some of her protagonists have to ‘give up on the things they love in order to make the world better,’ and this certainly applies to Jamie in The Homeward Bounders, as Colin points out:
The price of his victory is that he has to wander through the world’s for eternity on his own. It’s from this position of profound loss that he relates his story. […]
Repeatedly in the fiction of Diana Wynne Jones, a writer is a person who has to give up everything, and go through despair, in order to set other people free.
Another of Jones’ sons, Richard Burrow, at her funeral spoke of the yearning or elegiac quality of many of her best books, ‘a sign of the deep pain caused by her upbringing.’ He reiterates that ‘at the heart of her books is a sense of loss. From this point of view, The Homeward Bounders, the most tragic of her books, is also the most honest.’ He does acknowledge, however, that the book is atypical: earlier he confirms that her books are ‘sustained by an enormous love; a childlike yearning to create a world that fully satisfies the human soul.’
In ‘Some Hints on Writing’ Jones declared that ‘I think one of the things I wanted to tell people in my books was how to cope with the world when it goes crazy around you.’ And in a talk called ‘Some Truths About Writing’ she said
I have never really lost this sense that the world is basically thoroughly unstable. […] This sense that most people are crazy, if you look deep enough. Adults particularly, and children have to deal with them.
‘Difficult’ children’s fiction versus adult expectations — limiting rules — rage against unfairness — a sense of loss — an unstable crazy world ruled by adults. These are the strands which run through the author’s work and which she and her family particularly identified in The Homeward Bounders. By general agreement these threads are darker and more intense in the novel, which might confuse grown-up readers expecting a more upbeat conclusion. This will be my second read so I will have no illusions about the final outcome; this time, however, I would be focusing on the narrative details rather than puzzling where the plot will end up.
Finally, what inspired the novel’s concept of porous boundaries? In a conversation with academic Catherine Butler (writing as Charlie Butler) Jones described how the novel was ‘inspired by train journeys at night, coming home from dreadful school visits’ of the kind she describes in ‘A Day Visiting Schools’. Looking out of carriage panes she’d see ‘several layers of reflections from the various windows […] and you would think this could be a transparent box of worlds, and so in the book they turned out to be.’ Why she tended to write about multiple parallel worlds was, she said, because anything could happen and probably was happening somewhere or other.
Here was the context, environments which she could populate with crazy people and those who had to navigate through it all. I am curious now to see what I will draw from a revisit.