The DWJ Project: Changeover

Today is the anniversary of Diana Wynne Jones’ death. In memory of that, I bring you the final two posts of my re-read, which — through design on my part — will cover her first and last published novels.

This, of course, is the first one. It isn’t fantasy (or science fiction), and it was written for adults; as such, it definitely feels different from the bulk of her work. (There are not usually any strip-teases in her books.) And yet — as you would expect — there are touches that come across as familiar, a voice that will show up again and again in later stories.

The plot is (deliberately) farcical. The British government is preparing to hand over the reins of their soon-to-be-former colony, a fictional African country called Nmkwami. One of the governor’s aides, reading out his notes about suggestions to “mark change-over” (that is, to commemorate the handover of power), is misheard; the governor thinks he’s said something about a man named Mark Changeover. The “who’s on first” conversation that ensues leaves the governor with the distinct impression that some kind of rabble-rouser or terrorist is on the loose in Nmkwami. And, because nobody in the bureaucracy wants to admit they haven’t heard anything about such an important problem, the confusion snowballs, until all of Nmwkami, British and local alike, is turned out to hunt the Anarchist-Communist-Imperialist revolutionary Mark Changeover.

I’ll go ahead and put the rest behind a cut, though given how difficult it is to find this book, you guys may or may not care about spoilers. (Many thanks to katfeete for loaning me her copy, thus saving me about ninety dollars buying a used copy online.)

I admit that I was a bit nervous as to what I would find when I read this book. Changeover was published in 1970, and deals with a rather thorny subject (to whit, colonialism). There was a lot of potential for cringing. Jones is pretty even-handed with her characterization, though — by which I mean, everybody in this book is some flavor of idiot. They’re all trying to look good, or preach for a cause, or pursue an ill-advised romance, or just make sure that when the shit hits the fan, the worst of it gets blown onto somebody else.

The key thing, the moment that made me breathe a sigh of relief, is that when the gaping hole at the center of the entire mess (the non-existence of Mark Changeover) finally becomes apparent to the characters, it is the Nmkwamis who step up and solve the problem. They’ve had a hand in creating the mess, too — if Simon Aweyo, the British-supported Prime Minister, had been honest enough to say “I don’t know what you’re talking about” when the governor rang him, instead of semi-randomly attaching the Mark Changeover business to somebody he vaguely remembered from college, likely none of this would have happened — but when it comes time to end it, the Nmkwamis are overwhelmingly the driving force, while the Brits are just along for the ride. That was what I’d been hoping for, and I was glad to see it happen.

The plot itself is nonsense, of course. Apart from the plausible coincidences (like Kajal being interrupted so much in trying to talk about her son borrowing money from his father that her family ends up thinking Stromo took a bribe from Changeover), there are some decidedly less plausible ones: the American air force needing to have a nuclear bomber refueled in Truro right then, or Roger Clarke-Challenger just happening to show up after Simon Aweyo confused him with the imaginary guy the governor was babbling about. The plot is furthermore all over the place, as the omniscient pov ricochets like a pinball between three dozen characters. It was amusing at first, dragged a bit in the middle (when I started to get tired of all the confusion), and then picked up again at the end, once Sgoya figured out what had gone wrong, and started trying to fix it.

The characterization isn’t deep, but the omniscient approach means Jones is able to sketch out some vivid images very rapidly. I like Bastover and Nbendo, who only want to finish their chess game, and Tessa, who is so very tired of being called an English rose. And I really like Sgoya. (Especially at the very end, when Tessa figures out that he’s trying not to crack up laughing.)

On a worldbuilding front, there isn’t a whole lot here; Nmkwami comes across as generically African (I’d guess East African, because of the Indian and Chinese presence, but I could be wrong). This isn’t really a story that lends itself to deep cultural detail, though. And in some ways it might backfire if we had it; then the mocking attitude would bleed over to the society, rather than just the characters (and the bureaucracy, which richly deserves it). I had an eye on that because of the research I’m doing right now, but this turns out to be not the book for such things.

On the whole, this was a lot more fun than I expected, given that I don’t read a lot of “realistic” fiction, nor a lot of farce. And while it doesn’t have the richness and depth of her fantasy, it’s pretty good for what it sets out to be. I’ll be curious to see if anybody reprints it again, so that it will become easier to find.

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