The DWJ Project: The Lives of Christopher Chant
After much hemming and hawing, I decided that I needed to start the re-read with The Lives of Christopher Chant, as it was — so far as I recall — the first DWJ book I ever read.
So I think what I’m going to do with this project is post an entry for each book, and put the non-spoilery stuff up top, then hide the spoilery stuff behind a cut. (I’ll put in a warning, for those reading this by RSS feed or other methods that might show the whole entry at once.)
Mind you, it’s hard to know what to say. I love this book in that unreserved way you can generally only get by forming your attachment in childhood, when things can bypass your brain and go straight to your heart. The easy thing to do is point you at the recommendation I wrote back when I was doing those on a monthly basis — with two corrections, those being that I spelled Throgmorten’s name wrong there (how could I make such a mistake?) and somewhat mis-spoke on what constitutes the unifying thread of the story. It’s really more about Christopher’s spirit travels than it is about the Chrestomanci business.
If you want an introduction to Diana Wynne Jones’ work, I’d say this is a good place to start. It has a lot of her hallmarks: children with more power than they’re initially aware of, hard bits the story doesn’t flinch away from, choices with consequences. It also sets you up for the rest of the Chrestomanci books, all of which take place later, though half of which (Charmed Life, Witch Week, and the Magicians of Caprona) were written sooner. (When I get to Charmed Life, I’ll have more to say about the chronological relationship of those two.) I really love the concept of the Related Worlds, and the notion behind just how nine-lived enchanters come to exist, and I also love the way the story seems to go beyond the boundaries of the frame. Just how did Cosimo Chant and Miranda Argent end up married, anyway? What happens with Fennig and Oneir after Christopher leaves school? What’s the tragic tale of Mordecai Roberts and Miss Rosalie, before the book begins? We get hints, but nothing extensive, and if you tell me there’s fanfic out there answering those questions, I won’t be at all surprised.
But the stuff I really want to say involves specifics, so let’s go behind the cut for that.
It’s interesting to wonder how many of my own narrative habits can be traced back to this book, or whether I’m just inventing patterns. Names having significance? I know I always get chills when Christopher calls Mordecai Tacroy, after they figure out Gabriel’s lives have gone to Series Eleven. Child characters getting to kick ass with their skills? I read this several years before Ender’s Game, though that’s the book I usually point to as my exemplar of the motif. Male characters being tall and dark-haired? That seems to be my brain’s default (see Exhibit A: all the Merrimans when I ran Memento — one of whom was named Christopher), though I usually try to prod myself away from it. I know “Once a Goddess” had its roots in an anthropological article about Kumari, but it’s entirely possible I glommed onto that idea because my brain had been primed for it by the situation with the Living Asheth.
Scenes I love: “EMPTY YOUR POCKETS, CHANT!” The Goddess’ portent from Asheth. Christopher lighting his seventh life on fire after giving it to the Dright. Everything involving Throgmorten. Everything with Tacroy after the Castle staff arrest him. I heart Tacroy in general, and his steady, consistent lying as they question him makes me go squish inside.
It’s definitely interesting, the hard stuff tucked away inside this story (as is generally the case with DWJ’s books). She doesn’t linger on it too hard, but it’s there, in a way I can’t help but think is very carefully calibrated for the youth of its audience: if you’re not ready to see it, you can glide right past, but all the important stuff is there once you see it. The butchering of the mermaid tribe, for example — this time through, I particularly noticed Tacroy pointing out that while he didn’t know at the time, he also didn’t quit once he found out. I don’t think it’s just because of the Dright’s orders; the more I think about him working at that job for years, the more I find myself pondering what it did to his character. The Living Asheth business is another good example: glancingly horrific as you read it, increasingly so the more you stop and think about it.
The one thing that doesn’t come across as appallingly as it might is the business of Christopher dying (six times during the course of the book). There’s definitely a bit in the middle there, when he breaks his neck twice in quick succession, where the general effect is pretty flippant. Which is understandable, given that he’s got nine lives . . . but to the extent that there’s horror in that idea, I have to imagine it for myself. We never get much sense that Christopher is psychologically affected by impalement, massive head trauma, two broken necks, and twice being lit on fire, even when he doesn’t know what’s going on. To some extent that can probably be credited to the way he keeps dying in the Anywheres, and therefore thinks of it as a dream — but aside from the bit where he careens all over the hospital shrieking that he’s missing cricket practice, he takes it in stride to a surprising degree.
Anyway. I love this book, and I love Christopher; in fact, my disappointment with Conrad’s Fate can largely be summed up as “not enough Christopher, dammit.” I’ll end with a question for those of you who have read the book: how old do you think he is, anyway? A note at the front of the edition I have now says it all takes place at least twenty-five years before Charmed Life, which at least gives me a ballpark range for his age in that book, but I didn’t notice any numbers being put on either the time period (turn of the century-ish?) or his age in this novel. I’d guess he’s maybe ten or so? But I’m curious to see what other people think.