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October 2002
2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones
Greenwillow Books (Trade)
: ISBN 0060298871  Reissued  2002
First published in Great Britain in 1981
Review by EJ McClure

291 pages List price $16.99  
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Recycling is a good thing. Otherwise, I would have missed this delightful tale concocted from all those deliciously spooky Halloween treats: ghosts, curses, revenge, and time travel. The Time of the Ghost is being marketed as a "children's book," but its characters are vividly three-dimensional (except for the ghost), and it has as complex and surprising a plot as any mystery fan could hope for. What's missing is the usual gruesome violence, sex and profanity . . . but it's a pleasure to chance across a writer who can sustain a plot without those props. And do so in wonderfully precise prose that has wit, grace, and style.

The Melfords run a boarding house and teach at an impoverished school in rural England for hordes of horrid boys. Their own four daughters are relegated to the attic, fed on leftovers (if anyone remembers to save something for them), and appreciated only when neither seen nor heard. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase: "out of sight, out of mind."

The girls occupy themselves by caging food from the kitchen staff, pestering each other, befriending the boys on the sly, and for a brief time, and making up elaborate ceremonies to play at worshiping Monigan, a dilapidated rag doll. But all these entertainments eventually grow stale, and the girls come to the dreary conclusion that their overworked parents wouldn't notice if one of them went missing . . . and they are right.

The only problem is, the ghost doesn't know which one of the sisters she is! Is she the pathetic Imogen, always grieving for what might be and what might have been? Or quarrelsome Sally, with her dangerous secrets? Or well-intentioned, bad-tempered Cart? Or little Fenella, that ferocious imp, with her hair tied in granny knots? This puzzle preoccupies the ghost at first; she only gradually realizes that how she came to be a ghost is only part of the riddle. Then it dawns on her that maybe she can avoid being a ghost, if only she can piece together the scattered clues to figure out what terrible accident befell her. If only she can figure out when it all went wrong, and somehow go back in time to fix it.

But Monigan isn't having any of it. She was cheated of her sacrifice, and she means to have the life she was promised.

Diana Wynne Jones has earned numerous literary awards on both sides of the Atlantic during her twenty-five year publishing career, but don't let that stop you from enjoying The Time of the Ghost for the sheer pleasure of a well-spun yarn. With its deft descriptions, snappy banter, and eccentric cast of characters, it won't take you long to get caught up in the convoluted plot, and next thing you know, the witching hour will be upon you. Happy Halloween.

sfr3d.gif (19860 bytes) 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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