April Rainers

© C A Lovegrove

Hexwood
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Collins 2000 (1993)

Here’s another twisty plot from the girl Jones, somewhat similar to wandering around a curiously managed patch of spring woodland. One thing I have learned about rereading Diana Wynne Jones novels is that, whatever my first impressions were, future revisits will inevitably reveal that I wasn’t paying proper attention the first time around. Or even the second time.

In this fantasy, for example, much is made of the sense of déjà-vu experienced by principal characters, emphasising that this or that memory will always prove more or less elusive the more one tries to examine it. And so it proved with my reread — I kept having to turn back pages to check if and when something familiar seemed to turn up, and not always being successful.

In fact, then, Hexwood appears to be a kind of metaphor or indeed metafiction for the experiences a reader has when visiting the author’s novels for the first or, indeed, the nth time, highly apt then for a fiction which doggedly explores the unreliability of time perception.

© C A Lovegrove

To summarise the premise of Hexwood in a few words isn’t easy, but I shall try, using a phrase from the blurb to my edition: “Hexwood is like human memory; it doesn’t reveal its secrets in chronological order.” In this it shares some of the attributes of the woodland in Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood (1984) in which mythic images or mythagos emerge out of wood’s matrix and become substantial, and the mythic past interacts with the quotidian present in unpredictable ways.

At first though we seem to be dropped straight into a science fiction novel rather than a piece of mythic fiction: we meet a Sector Controller of the planet Albion who’s received a message from somebody at Rayner Hexwood Maintenance on Earth warning of a potential problem. He feels he must involve Homeworld, where the power for several inhabited worlds rests with five rulers called Reigners, whose authority is dispensed by a Servant. Our attention then shifts to a boy in a wood, who when confronted by a dragon-like creature has to find a way to counter it. No sooner are we digesting this then our attention is switched to the mundane setting of Hexwood Farm housing estate and Ann Stavely, on the cusp of becoming a teenager but stuck at home because of a debilitating virus. Oh, and she hears voices.

These multiple scenarios are all linked to Hexwood, a place which suggests magic in its very name. But as well as hopping around in time the novel introduces us to many named individuals and entities, and pretty soon we realise that many of these have multiple identities. I had to resort to a notebook to keep track of these, very much as one might do with a crime mystery, and became easily distracted with trying to work out the significance of names and functions. For example, it doesn’t take a genius to realise Arthurian motifs are involved, even Norse mythic types, or that descriptions of ‘pearly’ portals (made of Earth flint) are possible references to Christian mythology. I also suspect that the author has taken ideas from the traditional counting song Green Grow the Rushes, O! but without being literal about the numbers involved.

There are also dark elements here which give a real edge to the storytelling. There’s child abuse, both physical and emotional, and even hints of incest, along with terrible abuse of power. Why such sombre details in what’s marketed as a children’s book? I suspect that, not long after Margaret Thatcher’s premiership came to an end but while her party were in power, Jones — like a lot of sensitive individuals who believed in social justice — was aware of how virtual absolute power could corrupt, and how social inequalities were being exacerbated. Also, as in the case with much of her fiction, elements of autobiography doubtless crept in when we remember her own dysfunctional upbringing.

Yet this novel as a whole has the quality of a dream verging on nightmare in which nonsensical connections somehow appear to have a rationale. Early on we are told that Ann’s brother Martin enjoys role-playing games and this fact gives a clue to the logic pervading the narrative: players have the chance of exploring scenarios, learning from them so as to proceed past dangers to the next level of expertise. We have to be careful though that as readers we’re not being misdirected: at various stages we’re told that a machine called the Bannus merely enacts a series of scenes (much as RPGs), then that it’s a machine for making dreams come true or translating dreams to reality; but, as several further clues make very clear, it has functions beyond this which aren’t revealed — if they’re revealed at all — till near the end.

But ultimately, despite all the colourful characters (who really whittle down to some half dozen or so individuals) this novel is about the magic the imagination can create. We seem to have an ancestral fascination with woods, sometimes verging on fear; whether the Teutonic forests of the Grimm fairytales, the tropical jungles where unknown fauna and flora abound, or the tamed coppiced woodland of pastoral countrysides, we dare to explore vicariously, playing hide and seek, peopling them with outlaws, damsels, warriors and mythical creatures, and searching for a structure — whether cottage or castle — to rest awhile.

Just such a place is Hexwood — just forty miles from London, we’re specifically told. As, incidentally, was Thaxted, where the author spent a significant part of her unorthodox childhood. No wonder Hexwood has a distinct if uncomfortable intensity about it, as though Jones was revisiting part of her life through the writing of it.

28 thoughts on “April Rainers

  1. Now that you mention it, I think I can remember more instances in fiction where woods are places to fear than where they aren’t–may be the Faraway Tree (Enid Blyton) woods are welcoming but a place of magic all the same, and even Frost’s inviting woods are dark.

    Amidst your discussion of magic, imagination and woods, my eyes seemed to (unsurprisingly) keep going back to ‘stuck at home because of a debilitating virus.’

    I must explore Wynne Jones sometime–I keep reminding myself each time after reading your reviews but have still not gotten down to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you’re thinking of reading Jones I wouldn’t start with this one, it’s far too confusing for a DWJ newbie! Try for example Charmed Life or Howl’s Moving Castle, both tricksy in their own ways but eminently more approachable for a first acquaintance.

      That debilitating virus reference I deliberately stuck in because I knew it would resonate with readers’ present experiences. In fact that section almost begins like a modern version of Alice Through the Looking Glass because Ann, confined to bed, watches some of what happens in the street outside using the reflections in a suitably placed mirror — and of course things get curiouser and curiouser.

      I only got a couple of pages into one of the Faraway Tree books before deciding I couldn’t manage Blyton any more, sorry! But other woodland scenes that spring to mind occur in so many stories as the springboard to adventure: the Narnia books are full of them, as also is Middle-earth, but I enjoyed Tarzan’s jungle adventures as a teenager, and Mowgli’s of course, Robin Hood stories, and later William Morris and no end of fairytales. Marginally less frightening perhaps but just as magical were the woods in The Wind in the Willows and the Winnie the Pooh books. The list seems endless once you start!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve noted the names, thanks 🙂

        True, oh yes, Pooh’s woods are certainly more benign. I haven’t read Tarzan yet (just some comic book versions). The Wind in the Willows too, though Pan’s presence give them that slight touch of the unsettling, much as I love the Pan scene.

        And I do agree, once one starts considering the number of books with woods in them, they really do seem endless.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. The Tarzan books were great when I was a teen but tedious to revisit now. The first in the series is worth a look though (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-apeman) and maybe Jungle Tales of Tarzan (1919) which is the collection that began it for me, aged about 14 or 15.

          Pan’s sylvan appearance is exactly as you say — unsettling while benign — and is probably as an adult my favourite scene in the book

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Alison Doig

    Thank you for this. Hexwood is not my favourite DWJ but it is one of the most interesting in terms of ideas, use of myth etc. The recent Marvel series, Wandavision, uses almost exactly the same idea: that of an artificially constructed reality which sucks people in and then messes with their memories.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for commenting, Alison. It’s not my favourite either, and I’ve been delaying my reread and review because it seemed terribly confusing when I first read it; and even though I was attracted by the Arthurian references, which was why it had been recommended to me, I couldn’t work out why they’d been integrated into the plot.

      I understand better now. She always said children ‘get’ her work more than more prosaic adults ever did, but I had to approach this read almost like a Christie mystery, notebook to hand.

      Other than the name I haven’t familiarised myself with Wandavision but reading Hexwood was a bit like watching a Christopher Nolan film — bursting with ideas, though you have to go with the flow and not question the logic too much. I think her combination of scenarios out of sequence with multiple identities was clever, but that left me with confused sympathies for the main protagonists.

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      1. It took me several reads before I started to like this one more. I think the Arthurian elements have to do more with their being classic “story material” embedded in our cultural consciousness than anything else.

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        1. I’m with you on the embedded aspects of Arthurian material in cultural consciousness, Lory, and that’s certainly the case here. I tried to avoid analysing how she used those references in favour of an overview of what the story was trying to do, though I guess a further read will tell me I missed the boat entirely this time!

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  3. Goodness – that sounds like quite a story! I was thinking of my TBR list (again!) until you said you needed to write down characters to keep track of them – I don’t have the energy for that right now! (Just getting over a chest infection again for the second time in a month.)

    I feel a lot of kinship with the experience you describe here:

    “…whatever my first impressions were, future revisits will inevitably reveal that I wasn’t paying proper attention the first time around. Or even the second time.”

    I love to reread books and I’ve been discovering lately some stories I read over 20 to 30 years ago. Oftentimes I find myself aghast at how little I noticed or understood the first time around! Sometimes I wonder if the difference is that I wasn’t aware of my autism at that time, so I didn’t have any strategies to help or any increased focus on the things I often miss in social communiction and understanding. But then I think about the idea of not being able to cross the same river twice and think maybe it’s down to me just being a very different person now and so bringing a different mind to the same information. Anyway I find the experience very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with all you say here, Jo, from the reservoir of energy needed to actively engage with some complex books being at a low level to not being able to cross the same river twice.

      Whether that’s true for many or all readers or just for those with particular autistic traits I wouldn’t like to judge, but I can say I recognise in myself what you mean when you write “I find myself aghast at how little I noticed or understood the first time around”. For many years I must have skimread most fiction, reserving nonfiction for a habit of filling notebooks with copious notes (which I still have!).

      Now I furiously note-take with fiction, principally to write reviews; and these I notice have got gradually longer over the years to become mini-essays…

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  4. I don’t think I ever skimread anything except for the endless scientific papers at work. I just took in so little of what I read. I wonder if some of this might also be caused by coming back to something when one has more maturity and life-experience. Perhaps many moments of connection and understanding with writing happen when the writing picks up on things we, as readers, have experienced. When we are younger this is bound to happen less.

    If you’re note-taking with fiction is where you get your capacity for your excellent reviews then I’m really glad you’ve applied it to fiction! Talking of note-taking, that’s how I finally got through the Silmarillion. I was studying Oracle Database Design at the time and used datahandling concepts in my notes to follow the threads of family lineages and major stories. It wasn’t an enjoyable experience though, although my data handling notation got some good practice!

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    1. I’m not sure when, if ever, I’ll get to The Silmarillion, though I’ve got as far as re-acquiring a copy of it after an earlier downsizing exercise. Sounds like I’d have to be well and truly organised as well as dedicated!

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      1. It’s OK to read only part of The Silmarillion, as it’s not a novel. I started a reread some time ago and got bogged down in the middle, as long melancholy hero-tales are not my thing. But I enjoy some parts of it and I think you would too.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. This is heartening to know, Lory, a fact I’ll keep in mind for when I finish my LOTR revisit here! Long hero tales aren’t particularly my thing either but I know from his poetic reworkings from Finnish and German mythology what he was about with hero tales.

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  5. Oh, excellent post! I can remember nothing of Hexwood as it’s so long since I read it – but you do make me want to go back to it. DWJ always did have dark undercurrents, but this sounds as if it might be her darkest. She never did tell her stories in the way you would expect, but I love that quote about chronology!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When you look at her work as a whole and recall her unusual upbringing — and thank goodness we now have those memoirs and essays collected together in Reflections — it’s hard not to read all the vicissitudes the protagonists get into as reflecting aspects of that childhood. There’s where much of the darkness originates, I think, Karen, as certain of those essays seem to imply. That quote from the blurb is good, isn’t it? It’s not often blurb writers put their finger on the nub of a novel.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I began Mythago Wood about twenty years ago and didn’t go the distance Now I can’t find my copy. Hexwood sounds equally challenging.

    I used to love E Blyton so much when i was a child. Now the quality of the writing stands out as pretty crook (as we say in Oz)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is equally if not more challenging than Mythago Wood, but it at least has some humour — Mythago seems to squeeze all joy out of living unless you’re a masochist. I much preferred Holdstock’s The Fetch — while borrowing a few tropes from the Mythago series this standalone has both suspense and psychological interest (but still no humour): https://wp.me/s2oNj1-fetch

      I’m sure there is the odd Blyton title or two I’d enjoy out there, but I really can’t be bothered to go searching for them; and the half page of the Faraway Tree I opened out was way too cutesy for my delicate sensibilities…

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        1. Near us there’s an ancient yew tree in a village churchyard, said to be well over a thousand years old. Within its hollow interior someone has conveniently placed a wooden chair. The yew of course is the Tree of Death… 😁

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    1. It’s extraordinary how, in amongst all the trademark Jones touches, she manages to make each novel distinctive. Hope you pick it up sometime — along with some extra shelving! 🙂

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  7. I haven’t read Hexwood, though I must say I’m tempted. Not sure it will be to my liking as much as say, Howl’s Moving Castle or Homeward Bounders, but it does sound intriguing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s certainly different from the other two titles you mention, Ola! If you ‘got’, say, Nolan’s Inception first time round, you’ll get this straight off — if not, puzzlement may crease your face. Unlike Howl or Sophie, or Jamie in ‘Bounders’, the multiple identities overall make it hard to allocate one’s empathy easily, but the twisty plot sort of takes up most of one’s attention.

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