February 02, 2015

Diana Wynne Jones: "The Time of the Ghost"

Title: The Time of the Ghost [on Amazon | on Goodreads]
Series: None
Author: Diana Wynne Jones [Fansite | Goodreads]
Genres: Supernatural
Year: 1981
Age: 12+ (but it can be enjoyed by younger readers as well)
Stars: 4/5
Pros: Rich, nuanced story. A well-woven blend of supernatural and ordinary (well, so to speak) peppered with humour and mystery, and sporting an unusual ghost.
Cons: A bit slow and old-fashioned. Requires more than a read to create a strong connection with the reader.
Will appeal to: Those who can delve into a book with patience.

Blurb: The ghost turns up one summer day, alone in a world she once knew, among people who were once her family. She knows she is one of four sisters, but which one? She can be sure of only one thing - that there's been an accident. As she struggles to find her identity, she becomes aware of a malevolent force stirring around her. Something terrible is about to happen. One of the sisters will die - unless the ghost can use the future to reshape the past. But how can she warn them, when they don't even know she exists? (Amazon excerpt)

Review: This book taught me a lesson. I pretty much bought it on a whim, because the title put my two favourite themes together...dead-but-not-quite-dead characters and time travel. While some reviews mentioned it to be a bit slow, I decided the thing wasn't likely to bother me. Later, upon reading it for the first time, I thought I should have paid those reviews more heed - I liked the book fine enough, but it was more of a three-star item for me. Except that I've re-read it twice since then...and every time I found myself appreciating it more - hence the four stars. I've always had a feeling that books need a couple of reads for their ratings to be accurate. Now I have proof that at least some of them do.
In The Time of the Ghost, the main characters are four sisters, whose age is not clearly stated - though they must all be in their teens or around, except for Fenella (there's a later paragraph in the book from which we gather that she's ten when the story begins). They live next to a school for young males, run by their neglectful-bordering-on-abusive parents (when I say "abusive", I specifically mean their father). On the other hand, this is not a Virgin Suicides type of story, not at all. Most of the time, the four sisters are simply left fending for themselves in regard to their basic necessities (more often than not with amusing results, despite the potentially tragic situation), and carrying on with their lives without any adult supervision (which is one of the reasons why the story ultimately takes a dark turn). When the book opens, they've actually envisioned a plan in order to shake the usual torpor out of their parents, a plan whose main point involves the "disappearance" of one of the sisters. And, grotesque as it may seem, the plan is not even working. [Note: most of the incidents told in TTOTG, despite sounding highly peculiar, are based on the true life of DWJ - see this autobiographic page]. This is precisely when the ghost of one of them - oblivious of her own identity - comes back from an unknown time and place in order to prevent a horrible "accident". [...]

I think one of the reasons why the standard reader may take some time to warm to this story is that neither of the sisters are what you'd call "pleasant". They even have a love-hate relationship with one another, so said reader is probably not supposed to like them straight away. Their quirks will ultimately win you over, but it may take more than a read - like in my case. It's the mystery that keeps you going at first....the mystery and a sense of approaching evil, stronger and stronger by every chapter. It takes more time - in my experience at least - in order to truly appreciate the image DWJ is painting, and even her ironic or tragically funny brush strokes, and to realize that the four sisters (with a couple of allies) are, in the end, unlikely but brave heroines in their own story.
Also, don't miss this book if you like dogs. No, not the type of dog that is able to save its owner's life or anything like that. Oliver will make you smile and even laugh, though - this I can guarantee you - and he will end up having a hand paw in the solution nevertheless...though a very unwilling one.
The Time of the Ghost is many things. It's a look at a rural England and a dysfunctional family. It's a mystery, with the ghost lead trying to figure out who she really is (...or was?), what happened to her, and how to fix it - if fixing is possible. It's a time travel story, but not of your usual kind. It's a vintage book (it reads much older than a 1981 one) that challenges your patience a bit, but will ultimately repay you with a different, multifaceted story. And different is always good :).

[Note: a couple of years ago, while reading Girl of Nightmares by Kendare Blake, I found out that The Time of the Ghost (which I had already read back then) was mentioned in it. Unfortunately, I didn't wrote the page number down, and I don't remember the reason why it was mentioned. I'll edit this note when I get back to reading GON].

For more Supernatural books click here.

Cover galore! from 1981 to present (though the last one was also used in the 80's, it seems)


  1. I'm intrigued!!! I didn't catch (or just don't remember) the reference to this book in Anna Dressed in Blood. But, I recently went to an author event for Gayle Forman and Maggie Steifvater, and Diana Wynne is one of her all time favorite authors and is why Maggie Steifvater got into fantasy herself. I do have Howl's Moving Castle on my Kindle Tbr shelf, but I might be adding this one too!

    I don't know that I've ever re-read a book that I only had kind of liked, but I definitely re-read books I love over and over again, and my love for those ones only grows. I just have too many unread books now to justify (to myself, at least) re-reading ones that I didn't love. But I totally get what you mean, and I'll have to give it a try. ;)

    1. In my experience, not every book gets better when you re-read it. But some books are so quiet, compared to most of those we're used to read, that they need a little more time and patience in order to shine :).


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