Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Homeward Bounders

I am still making my way through Diana Wynne Jones's backlist. I probably wouldn't have read The Homeward Bounders for a long time to come as it's currently out of print in the the US (except as an e-book) if it weren't for a conversation on Twitter I had with Sage Blackwood in which she said she heard some consider it to be a metaphor for life as a military kid. My interest level rose exponentially and she was kind enough to send me an old used library copy to read. (Much thanks for that.)

This book, like all of Jones's books, has had many covers. I'm using the latest UK cover because I really like these covers for her books.

"You are now a discard. We have no further use for you in play. You are free to walk the Bounds, but it will be against the rules for you to enter play in any world. If you succeed in returning Home, then you may enter play again in the normal manner." When Jamie unwittingly discovers the scary, dark-cloaked Them playing games with human's lives, he is cast out to the boundaries of the worlds. Only then does he discover that there are a vast number of parallel worlds, all linked by the bounds, and these sinister creatures are using them all as a massive gamesboard. Clinging to Their promise that if he can get Home he is free, he becomes the unwilling Random Factor in an endless game of chance. Irresistible Diana Wynne Jones fantasy adventure, featuring an insect-loving shapeshifter, an apprentice demon hunter and a whole host of exotic characters clinging to the hope that one day they will return Home.

The Homeward Bounders unfolds slowly. For the first part of the novel Jamie is all alone simply telling his story about how he came to be a Homeward Bounder and the way the worlds work. As he tells his tale little things about Them (the players) are revealed, and what is revealed is rather chilling. They have no regard for lives. They are ruthless in pursuit of the game they are playing. The game they are playing is us and our lives. And the lives of countless other beings in countless other worlds. We are all pieces on a giant board game helped along by computers and players (the identity of who is a brilliant reveal). Who hasn't wondered about that at some point in their life? This is the sheer genius of Diana Wynne Jones, taking the things everyone ponders and expanding on them and turning them into a brilliant story. Jamie is thrust out of his world after discovering the game. A "discard", he is forced to wander the worlds in search of home. He is alone for a great deal of his search and that loneliness comes off the page and affects the reader. Finally Jamie is able to find some companions. Helen is special in her world, but has been exiled because she also discovered too much.   Joris is a demon hunter apprentice, a slave with so much devotion he was dragged into life as a Homeard Bounder by a demon he refused to let go. These three are misfits and they form a strong if somewhat squabble team. A team that doubles when they are able to convince some actual non-Bounders of what is going on. But of course, this can't last forever. They are not going to allow them to remain together without a fight. I really enjoyed Jamie as a character all alone, a wander traveling the worlds. And I loved his interactions with the family he cobbles together from the people he meets. Helen and Adam are particularly fun to watch him with.

The Homeward Bounders is tragic, far more so than a lot of Jones's books are. It is a sort of tragic that is full of purpose though. The trials are not for nothing and the people suffering them learn to adjust, though it leaves scars and yearnings they will never shake. Yes, I can see why some people have likened it to life as a military brat. There were some sentences that made me cry because, yes, they do describe the feelings you have, the feeling that home is a place out there somewhere if you could only just find it, but deep down you know you never will because you missed that chance. That your life is out of your control. That you form attachments only to have them ripped away from you so why bother forming them at all anymore. There is something utterly profound in the conclusion of the book that relates as well. The lack of choice the Bounders have about how long they stay in one place (but they do know approximately how long it will be) and their lack of choice in where they end up next speaks to it as well. Whether Jones did this intentionally or not, I can't help but wish I had this book growing up.

The Homeward Bounders is not a book everyone is going to like, but it is perfect for me. I think it is one of Jones's best actually. It doesn't have the charm and quirk of Chrestomanci, Howl, or Derkholm, but it still has a sly and ironic humor that keeps it from being too tragic. And in the end it really is a beautiful story that is brilliantly crafted.


  1. I read this one years ago when I was reading lots of DWJ. I think it was one of my least favourite; I actually found it a bit disturbing. Fire and Hemlock and Howl's Moving Castle were a lot better (for me).

    1. Interesting because I don't think they get much more disturbing than Fire and Hemlock. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE Fire and Hemlock, but that's the one that disturbs me the most.

    2. I think they're disturbing for different reasons. When I read Fire and Hemlock, the age thing never really bothered me. Now I guess we've had so much of that sort of thing (with books like Twilight) that it sets off people's internal pedophile alarms.

      I've noticed that some of DWJ's books are a little dated in certain ways that might seem disturbing. One of the more recent ones I read had a little girl following a strange man into the bushes like it was no big deal. *shudder*

  2. Oh, so glad you enjoyed this one, Brandy. Structurally it's some of the best work she ever did, and it was written during the time period when I think her plots were strongest and most tightly woven.

    I read it when it first came out (in that hideous brown "you-don't-want-to-read-this-kid" cover), and at that age my reaction was kind of "Oh cool! Dungeons and Dragons!" Which I was very into for about less-than-a-year. Since then I've probably read it 20+ times.

    It's one of I think only two (?) books she wrote in the first person, the other being Spellcoats. Both books have a story frame, and in both of them there's the suggestion that telling the story actually serves some magical purpose for the narrator.

    And it has some great lines:

    "You can't tell them you're a Homeward Bounder."
    "You wouldn't believe how lonely you get."
    "I still don't know what called the Homeward Bounders."

    There's a quality of confidence to those lines that leaves the reader no room for doubt.

    And this bit, which every writer should study for its sheer economy:

    "But what I didn't see was my own reflection in that door as I dashed across the gravel. I should have thought about that. But I didn't. It was probably too late by then anyway."

    (Chills. Those last eight words do what would take most of us a paragraph to accomplish.)

    And I can just imagine an editor saying "Do you want to explain who the man on the rock is? Children may not know the myth." And Jones thinking about it and deciding that no, she doesn't.

    So you did think that it had some relevance to the millitary child experience. Jones didn't have that experience herself, of course, but she did spend her early years moving about a lot as an evacuee. Perhaps that's the experience she's calling on.

    For that matter, I spent my early years moving around a lot too. Hm.

    By the way, I just love Helen to bits, with her hair over her face and her love of creepy crawlies.

    1. It is structurally almost perfect. And there were SO MANY perfect lines. I kept flagging them and then decided to stop so I could just enjoy. I wasn't going o be able to include them all in the review anyway.

      I LOVE that she didn't go out of her way to explain the man on the rock and who THEY were. That is one thing I respect and adore about DWJ. She never condescended to her readers. I think I mention that in almost every review.

      I would say the evacuee experience would be incredibly to a military kid experience.

      Helen is great for all the reasons you said and her general contrariness. She may be my second fav DWJ heroine after Millie.

  3. That ending though! *cries forever*

    1. Yeah...but there is something there for me that makes it a little less sad. I feel like this book gets me so much.