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.