Recently I finished a module I’m doing with the Open University, so to reward myself I decided to sit down and reread Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.
I’ve loved HMC for many years – in fact my copy is pretty tatty! I think it’s beautifully written, very clever, very funny and as downright near to perfect as a book can get. It’s a children’s book, but I honestly think everyone should give this book a chance, it’s the kind of warm-hearted book that leaves you smiling no matter how you initially felt when you picked it up.
I’ve also had the time to reread the sequel, which is called Castle In The Air. This is also a good book – the characters are fantastically observed, and there are some sections that had me chortling out loud.
As I’ve grown older and come to have a deeper understanding of feminism and social justice, I’ve started noticing things in both books that have never occurred to me before.
HMC is told from the perspective of Sophie, the eldest of three daughters and doomed (so she insists) to failure because of it. The POV Sophie offers on other women can occasionally be tinged with some gender essentialism, but then I think it’s in some ways very cleverly subverted. Perhaps it’s due to the age of the book, but it is striking that it ends with nearly all the women nicely in relationships (with men) and many of them married or planning to be. I don’t think that this reduces the fact that every single woman that we meet through Sophie is strong, well-rounded and individual – it’s a very true reflection of the variety of women that I’ve met in my life, no one reads as false or artificial and Diana Wynne Jones is incredible at observing characters. But still, they ALL had to be in love (all aside from one is motivated in some part by loving a guy)?
Still, that doesn’t detract too much from the book, and I still love it as fiercely and passionately as I always have.
Castle In The Air is a hint more problematic though. Again, Diana Wynne Jones observes every character beautifully, each person we meet has a distinctive personality and style of their own and the storyline is fun and rolls along well enough.
Our narrator this time is Abdullah, a carpet merchant whose family is hounding him to take on some wives and finally become respectable. He falls in love with a Sultan’s daughter, Flower In The Night (who’s never seen a man other than her father, is about to be married off to a far-off prince and is, naturally, stunningly beautiful) …yeah. I’m not trying to suggest that DWJ writes in an overtly racist way – there’s no “And isn’t this WEIRD and WRONG, dear reader! How barbaric!” but there’s still a distinct air of exoticism going on. It’s uncomfortable to read, even if it’s not malicious or moralising.
It’s surprising how much this stands out to me – DWJ’s writing is still witty, her characters are compelling, lots of tropes are subverted, the plot rollicks along nicely, but. It’s so clear that DWJ is an outsider to the culture she was writing and it may not snap your suspension of disbelief but it can come very close.
I’d still recommend the book – it’s not quite up there with Howl’s Moving Castle, but it’s a fun return to the universe, and there’s a cast of princesses that I adore. However, as an adult, with a more complete awareness of the issues surrounding exoticism and feminism, I find myself noticing problematic aspects that would never have occurred to me when I was younger.
I’m yet to reread House Of Many Ways, the final in the trilogy, but I wonder how I’ll find it? It was written a lot more recently than the other two and I didn’t read it with the childish wonder I first had when I read HMC and CITA. We’ll see! If I enjoy it as much as I did HMC and CITA on this latest reread, then I’ll be very happy I dug it out!
Are there any books or films you’ve read lately that have aspects or issues that you’re aware of now you’re older? Does it reduce your enjoyment of them?