Review: Changeover, Diana Wynne Jones (a book you will probably never read)

I get a lot of credit within my family for being a good gift-buyer. Which is fair. I am really good at gifts. However, I sometimes feel concerned that Legal Sister’s considerable gifting prowess is underappreciated. I am always trying to find Legal Sister presents that will blow her mindhole, and I never exactly feel like I’ve accomplished it. Meanwhile she gets me crazy good presents including, most recently, Diana Wynne Jones’s extremely rare, difficult-to-find, and now that I’m thinking about it I really hope Legal Sister did not spend a fortune acquiring it, first novel.

(You didn’t, did you, Legal Sister? No, right?)

Anyway! I got Changeover for Christmas, thanks Legal Sister!, and saved it for this very occasion because I knew-slash-hoped that Kristen was hosting DWJ March again. The edition I have includes a very sweet introduction by Diana Wynne Jones in which she explains that she wrote this book because she was living in a very cold, miserable house with a sick husband and sick kids and sick self, and Africa is hot and it cheered her up to write about a hot place; and also she wrote it because Britain was divesting itself at that time of all its colonies, and every other week they’d be declaring independence in yet another former British colony.

That…is fascinating to me. Mumsy reports that when Robert Kennedy was killed she was like, “Eh. Everyone gets assassinated.” Perhaps was it the same with the former British colonies in the same era? Where you’d just be like, “Eh. All the former colonies get independent.” Because, seriously, when the Sudan/South Sudan split happened, I was enthralled with the idea of a brand new entire country for the map, and sort of shocked that everybody else wasn’t comparably intrigued. (Like when Leap Year rolls around and everyone’s super blase about the fact that we get a¬†free extra day’s worth of time.)

Oh, plus, she briefly mentions in this introduction — I’m sorry it’s taking me so long to get to the fireworks factory, but seriously this is so interesting and you probably want to know about it anyway, right? — that Ian Smith of Zimbabwe just declared independence there one day and Britain was like, “Hey, no, we haven’t agreed to that yet,” and Ian Smith was like, “Too bad! Unilateral Declaration of Independence!” and I loved how super-super-ballsy that was. But then I looked it up on Wikipedia and discovered that Ian Smith, eh, maybe he was not the greatest guy. He didn’t want the country to be governed by the will of the majority, which was black, because he was really into having it be governed by white people. This wasn’t racist! (he insisted) but was just because white people are smarter and better equipped to govern. Oh really, Ian Smith, really, IS THAT WHY?

(I know this is not History. It was all extremely recent. I just didn’t know about it before.)

Okay. Sorry. Digressions are over. Changeover is an excessively British book in the sense that it starts out with a small misunderstanding, and through many instances of incompetence, idiocy, timidity, insecurity, and intimidation on the part of every available character, it snowballs into a massive absurdist catastrophe. (See also: every episode ever of Fawlty Towers.) The misunderstanding occurs when a high-ranking colonial official mishears one of his aides and comes to believe that there is a person called Mark Changeover, and that person intends evil to the about-to-be-independent African country of Nmkwami.

(Nmkwami: Jokey spin-off word from numquam, Latin for never, as in, Neverland; as in, Diana Wynne Jones hated her whole life that year and was writing Changeover to escape from it.)

I don’t know what to say about this book, honestly, especially considering that you will probably never read it because it’s really rare and I own the only copy of it I’ve ever seen. It’s completely British. All the characters are running around the country in planes, cars, bikes, etc., bashing into each other literally and metaphorically, creating more and more ridiculous disturbance to themselves and those around them, until matters have reached such a fever pitch that the only available option is Revolution. There is some quiet commentary on racism and paternalism¬† and bureaucratic incompetence (very quiet indeed; the social criticism equivalent of scowling blackly at queue-jumpers), but really it’s mostly about everyone misunderstanding each other hilariously. If that is your cup of tea then you will like this book. It is my cup of tea except it makes me feel a little anxious if I can’t tell from context clues (or reading the end) that everything is going to turn out okay.

What’s particularly interesting to me — predictably — is the nascent Diana-Wynne-Jonesiness of it all. Like this:

[His] face was thin, with a lively sort of twist to it — the sort of twist men have who have been eccentrics from their boyhood on. He wore a tropical jacket-thing which did not fit him, with innumerable bulging pockets…Everything about him looked as if it had come from a junk shop, and over him hung a furtive smell of unpaid bills.

I submit to you this is the Diana-Wynne-Jonesiest sort of introduction a character can possibly have. Although she turned her talents to very different sorts of books than Changeover for the bulk of her career, the basic makeup of her writing is the same. It always has this matter-of-fact ruthless quality about it, whether she’s describing kids who’ve been shot to death (not in this book! in a different one!); or women who are realizing they tend to go for one particular sort of person and maybe should seek out some slightly different, nicer, sort; or just very common everyday things like new characters and their jackets.

I came away feeling, as I always do, that it’s lucky we got to have Diana Wynne Jones for 40 years. And also that 40 years isn’t nearly long enough for a writer as prodigiously talented and insightful and great as Diana Wynne Jones to have been writing books. 60 years would really not have been enough, or 100. I miss her.

34 thoughts on “Review: Changeover, Diana Wynne Jones (a book you will probably never read)

  1. *raises hand* I have a copy of it too, and mine is also the only copy I have ever seen. It took all my librarian-sleuthing skills to find it. So it’s awesome to read a review of it from someone else who has actually read it! I too liked it mostly for the nascent DWJ-ness, and for it being very much a book of its particular place and time. Quite a fascinating read, and shame it is really so very hard to obtain.

  2. Oh boy, I would love to read this, I so much like the extract you give! A quick hunt on Abebooks makes clear that I really can’t afford this degree of self-indulgence though. I’m really looking forward to The Merlin Conspiracy that’s been on my TBR list for a while but, at the same time, I don’t want to have read my last “new” DWJ. OTOH, if I read it, I can look forward to years of happy re-reading.

    Anyway, thanks, that was a really interesting post – and yes, Ian Smith was a horrible, evil man, I remember UDI. Yes, it was great that Britain was finally being divested of its colonies, but he and his government were truly appalling. Sorry, mustn’t rant, but you reminded me of how awful it was.

  3. I think it sounds fantastic, and am sorry to think I will probably never find it unless from one of those delightful prowlings through the dusty shelves of a used bookstore. Certainly my public library will never offer me a copy. It will be in the back of my mind for those future used-bookshop browsings, though.

  4. The description of the man whose face has a “lively sort of twist to it” reminds me of Matt Smith as the Doctor. There’s something very British.

  5. Despite the fact I know you’re not saying it is completely like Fawlty Towers, that comparison sold the book to me. It sounds like they need to reprint it.

  6. Oh, how I wish I could find and read Changeover without making my children go without food in order to do it! Thanks so much for telling us about it–that is a great description and now I really want to read it. It’s the only DWJ book I don’t have.

    • Hahahhaha, those choices are such a trial! But I think it’s best to err on the side of feeding your children and starving your mind a teeny bit. :p

  7. Jenny, Jenny, Jenny, you can’t just do that.. make this book sound all wonderful and very Diana Wynne Jones-y and then tell us that you own the only copy you have ever seen and that it is extremely rare. I’m now adding it to every online servicethat has the option of a wishlist and I *will* find a copy :)

  8. That sounds fantastic. DWJ was really under-appreciated for a very long time, unfortunately: it used to be that tracking down her books was difficult. I do wish one of her publishers would re-do Changeover.

    • It was reprinted in 2010 by, I believe, an outfit called Moondust Books, but I’m betting it was a pretty small run, and I believe only in the UK. And there is no Moondust Books any more.

  9. If I understand the story correctly, darling Legal has waited and looked for years for this one…and got it at a “semi-reasonable” price. She is a persistent little hobbit! I have a feeling I might like this as much as DWJ’s best work – because less fantastical.

  10. This is one of those authors that I feel like I MUST read at some point. Hence, I added Howl’s Moving Castle to my reader and plan on reading it for the OUT Challenge!. I think that when I finish I’ll come to your blog for other suggestions on books to read by her :) I’m glad that you enjoyed this one so much. It just made me want to read her that much more!

    • Yes! Yes! Come by my blog and ask me for suggestions. Comment on any post you like and ask for suggestions, and I will give them to you with alacrity. I love telling people what Diana Wynne Jones books they should read next.

  11. I am so unbearably jealous– this book sounds right up my alley. When I “discovered” Diana Wynne Jones a few years ago, I went through a fairly intense binge period that didn’t quite end with an intervention, but was probably close to that point.

    • Aw, only a few years ago? I remember when I first discovered her — I didn’t go on a binge though. I tried a few of her books and loved one, hated one, and disliked one reasonably much, so it took me a while to circle back around to her. Oh how I love her now though.

  12. One day I will come visit you and sit in your home and read your copy of Changeover, okay? :) I’m so glad that you were the one to get a copy of this. I think you’ve earned it with your devotion to DWJ. I think if she had ever met you, she would have loved you. :)

    • Totally! Totally fine.

      She wouldn’t have loved me, although you’re sweet to say so. I would have been all tongue-tied and awkward, and she would have thought I was boring. When really I would just be speechless with admiration.

  13. Exactly true about Jones’ ruthlessness. So many writers (especially fantasy) get carried away being sentimental and flowery and romanticise things to the point where it gets disappointing and at worst, embarrassing. Though I think sometimes DWJ’s horror of sentimentality might go too far (okay, I am borrowing this horror from Polly’s experiences in Fire and Hemlock, assuming that it was inspired by DWJ’s personal beliefs) it’s certainly refreshing.

    Something else I find interesting is how people always seem to be extreme fans of DWJ, rarely lukewarm about her. Maybe it’s because her writing style is so unique. (and loveable!) (I am one such extreme fan!)

  14. I also have one of these rare copies and have just begun it, as I took a hiatus after her passing, and haven’t read one for three years. It’s now time again, and this year I’m going to be reading them all in chronological order, starting with her true first, and I love it very much and am not even halfway through it yet. There *is* a whole lot of what I came to see as her Jonseiness throughout my years as a devotee. It’s delightful to have this “new” book to read and have it feel so familiar.

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