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.
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.