Title: Witch Week
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Series/Standalone: Chrestomanci Series (third in order of publication, can be read out of order)
First Published: 1982
Edition Reviewed: Collins 2000
Awards: School Library Journal Book of the Year
Price: Used prices on Amazon Market Place start from £2.23 at time of posting
This is (notionally) the third book in the Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones, and the third book I am reviewing in her memory. You may wonder why I’m not reviewing The Magicians of Caprona first, as that is the second book in the series. There are two reasons for this: 1) although I have read and enjoyed TMoC it didn’t really stand out for me as an exceptional book; and 2) although some of the Chrestomanci books are clearly demarked in relaton to an internal chronology, Witch Week could happen at any time for which Chrestomanci is an adult. (The Lives of Christopher Chant is the first in terms of internal chronology, but designed as a prequel. I read it first, but think it would be more satisfying to read if you were already intrigued by Chrestomanci.) Diana Wynne Jones wrote dozens of successful and lively books for children and young adults; I have no intention of reviewing them all, or even all of the 17 I currently own – these are just some of the highlights.
In a world where witchcraft is punishable by death, a wise witch does not practice his or her craft openly. Nevertheless, many are caught and burnt, often leaving orphans behind. Larwood House is a boarding school that takes in many children who have been orphaned in this way. The history of such children is protected – if it were to be known that their parents were witches, they might fall unfairly under suspicion and be ostracised by their classmates. When someone passes Mr Crossley an anonymous note saying ‘SOMEONE IN THIS CLASS IS A WITCH’, it is thus a very serious matter.
Recognising that the note is probably a prank, Mr Crossley is nonetheless concerned about its serious nature. Regardless of whether it is true or not, it’s a dangerous accusation to throw around. Despite his decision to be discrete and to not take direct action, however, word quickly spreads. Many of the students saw that he had received a note about something, and he makes the mistake of telling Miss Hodge, whom he secretly loves. Miss Hodge is somewhat less discrete, and this, combined with instances of actual witchcraft which set the school abuzz, sets off a course of events that gets swiftly out of control.
Accusations fly as some take the opportunity to captialise on existing prejudices, and for those who are startng to discover a power they didn’t know they had the situation becomes ever more dangerous. Finally, as an Inquisitor is summoned following an incident that cannot be ignored, some of the students flee. They hope for solace with an underground group that helps witches escape to a world where they will not be persecuted, but the local agent is now too scared of the authorities to help. All she can give them is one spell, which is simply the peculiar word ‘CHRESTOMANCI’ said three times beneath the Portway Oaks.
Why I like it
What can I say, this delightful little book pushes all the right buttons. Throughout it explores the theme of prejudice in a nuanced and reflective manner, going far beyond the obvious touchstones of bullying and judging people for being of a specific group that is not your own. This is a theme close to my own heart, and it’s a real pleasure to see it treated so well, and without becoming a deep plunge into something that could become very depressing indeed.
We follow many disperate paths through the story, providing a variety of different view points on events. In contrast to Charmed Life, where we’re really offered no redeeming insights into the unpleasant character of Gwendolen, here we’re slowly presented wth events that initally build up our own prejudices (concernng bullies, popular kids, and so on) which are then deconstructed, both through seeing the world through the eyes of those we judge, and through being shown the aspects of their lives that they were keepng secret. This is not to say that everyone is shown to be good on the inside – that would be just as unreal – but we are shown again and again how there is always more going on than there appears. We can never know completely the motivations and pressures that lie behind the actions of even our best friends, let alone our enemies. It’s quite impressive that Jones is able to convey such a complex message so elegantly and in a way so finely-crafted to entertain both children and adults alike.
One particularly effectve technique she employs is via the journals in which students are encouraged to express ther private thoughts (despite the fact that many of the students have worked out that the headteacher reads all the journals in the holidays). This could be an obvious and tiresome ploy, but in the hands of a master like Diana Wynne Jones, each journal entry is an individual delight. I especally enjoyed the entries of Charles Morgan. Charles has developed an elaborate code, via which he is able to express his true emotions in a way that reads like an extremely dull account of a child’s day at school. Thus, an entry like ‘I got up. I felt hot at breakfast. I do not like porridge. Second lesson was Woodwork, but not for long. I think we have Games next’ would mean something to the effect of: ‘I hate this school. At breakfast I thought about the witch I saw being burnt alive. I don’t like Simon Silverson. Later I thought about the second witch I saw, who was nice to me and whom I helped escape. But the good feeling I had from that didn’t last. I think something bad is going to happen.’ With this, Charles is able to express his secret thoughts and emotions. Once we’re famliar with Charles’s code it is used very effectively, at times chillngly and poignantly.
This is a deeply funny book, and also a deeply moving one. It’s surprising how well Jones is able to capture the seriousness and desperation of the stuation without creating a book too dark for children, or losing the simply joy and fun that is the signature of so many Diana Wynne Jones novels. It makes for an interesting contrast with other books about children and magic and schools. Where in Harry Potter children are freed by their ability to do magic, for these chldren their ablities must be hidden and contained if they are to survive. The feelings of frustration at the necessary suppression of their self-expression are ones most of us can probably relate to from our own experiences of both school and prejudice in general.
The book is also to be commended for the range of characters it presents. In addition to a more healthy balance of genders than most books can claim to, it also features a non-white character in a non-token role. Nirupam Singh is an intelligent and laid-back character who’s generally presented as a rather cool dude. Not in terms of popularity or other tradtional signifiers. He is, rather, simply likeable, confident without arrogance, intelligent and good natured. I like that he is neither a nerd or a jock. It would have been dissatisfying if he were made obvously popular simply because of his race, just as it would have been distasteful if he were at the bottom of the social rung for the same reasons. His heritage is not ignored, but neither is it blown up and made a fuss of. He’s a quietly cool dude who happens to be of asian descent. Granted, he’s also the only non-white character, but it’s not bad for 1982.
Chrestomanci’s introduction into this world is a feather in its cap, rather than the centre of the book, and it works well for him. For those who have not read any other Chrestomanci books, he is a nine-lived enchanters – very powerful and able to travel between worlds. He occupies a very important position in his world, where he works to regulate magic and make sure the other worlds are not exploited. As a part of his role, he can be summoned at the mere mention of his name.
In Witch Week, out of his own world and unusually misfooted, Chrestomanc becomes a more interestng character. In addition to his characteristic vagueness (which seems to become only vaguer the more attention he is really paying to something) Chrestomanci also displays a sense of humour and playfulness that overlays the hard steel of strength, control, and intelligence beneath. The character is much richer than the distant figure of Charmed Life, whilst still exuding the same enigmatic charisma.
All in all, this is a wonderful book in its own right, and, for me, the most enjoyable of the Chrestomanci books, too. It’s a wonder that no one has turned this into a children’s TV series.