The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones

Ogre DownstairsI’ve checked another one off my list of Diana Wynne Jones “to be read” – The Ogre Downstairs.  It’s a romp of a fantasy in the old style, about kids trying to cope with magical adventures gone awry.

Caspar, Johnny and Gwinny are not at all happy with their two new stepbrothers, Douglas and Malcolm, and even less happy with their new stepfather, invariably referred to as the Ogre.  The two sets of kids are forced to band together when two chemistry sets arrive, with rows of mysterious chemicals that cause unexpected results–from enabling flight to causing people to switch bodies to bringing inanimate objects (like toffee bars!) to life.

I feel like I’ve read many books (from Edward Eager to Edith Nesbit) about kids dealing with magical chaos, but it’s one of those tropes that doesn’t get old.  These kids felt like archetypal fantasy children, good kids with some flaws.  None emerged really strongly for me, but all five are distinct and effective within the story.  They go through some nice growth as well, particularly in their understanding towards each other.

The magic is highly amusing and entertaining, with a grand variety of mishaps.  The living, growing (and breeding) toffee bars are my favorite.

There’s a lot that’s good here, and the book is overall very fun.  But I did have a big problem–and that was with the Ogre.  (Spoilers here, you have been warned…)  Throughout the book, the Ogre is loud, angry, ominous and forbidding, apparently with no liking or understanding at all for children.  But then occasionally, for no clear reason, he’ll do something nice (like gifting them with the chemistry sets).  This made me suspect that DWJ intended to reform him by the end–and she does.  Although, it’s less about his change than about the kids changing their understanding of him.  Even with the hints along the way…it just didn’t work for me.

The trouble is, the hints felt less like signs of a complex character, and made him feel more inconsistent than layered.  The bigger trouble is that, though the kids ultimately decide he’s not really so bad–he is.  He doesn’t just yell–he’s nasty, mean and genuinely hurtful.  That would be bad enough, but at one point he gets angry enough to hit two of the boys.  The scene is off-stage, so it’s not clear if “hitting” means a mild clout, a serious beating or something in between.  All we do hear is “Johnny found out he had been right to postpone being hit by the Ogre.  It was an exceedingly unpleasant experience.”  And then Malcolm is ill for the next day.  After that, you can’t convince me that the Ogre’s “bark was so much worse than his bite” (a direct quote).

For the record, I really, really like characters with gruff exteriors and hearts of gold.  And I like happy endings, even improbably neat ones.  But this…just did not work for me.  I feel like the ultimate message was, “be understanding of the verbally and physically abusive stepfather and maybe he’s not really so bad.”  That may be putting it harshly, but I feel it’s a valid interpretation!

It’s really too bad, because 80% of this book is a delightful fantasy.  But then the conclusion of the last couple of chapters leaves me feeling rather troubled.  I tell myself it’s from a different time, and standards on child-rearing were different, and it’s true that if this was an Edith Nesbit book from the early 1900s I’d give it a pass…but was 1974 really that long ago?

I don’t know if I recommend this one or not.  It’s complicated.  But I know some of you are Diana Wynne Jones fans, so I’m very curious on whether you’ve read this one–and what you think!

Author’s Site:

Other reviews:
Dead Houseplants
Caroline Williams’ Blog
Readers By Night
Swan Tower
Forgotten Classics
Anyone else?

Buy it here: The Ogre Downstairs

4 thoughts on “The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones

  1. Yes, I agree that the Ogre is both inconsistent and unpleasant for most of the book, but I think this is another autobiographical detail from DWJ, presumably a tangential portrait of her father. You’ve read her ‘Reflections’ so you’ll remember the outrageous way her parents treated her. No doubt when her father was dying from cancer she was able to have more sympathy for him.

    Long after my own father died I finally got to recognise his plus points but for me as a teenager he was like the Ogre: distant, arbitrary, generous within limits but completely unable to function as an understanding parent. DWJ’s Ogre for me therefore rings true even though I was from the immediately post-war generation.

  2. I was already grown up when I discovered Diana Wynne Jones. That didn’t stop me from completely enjoying The Chronicles of Chrestomanci and the Howl’s Movies Castle series, but I do still wish I’d read her earlier. Your comments make me curious to read this now though; if only to see if it ends up dated as you describe. Thanks for the review!

  3. This wasn’t one of my favourite books by her, largely because of the Ogre. I wish I could remember the conversation I had about it with a friend because she made some really strong points that helped in my appreciation of how that gets handled, at least at the time of the conversation. It still makes me deeply uncomfortable, though, which puts it on my list of books to apply “How to like problematic things” to.

    Still, I did love the way the children all grew and came together and the adventures they had with all the magic going wrong. I haven’t read all of her works yet, but this is definitely one of her more troubling works for me. And she’s got a lot of darkness woven through her works, so that’s saying quite a bit!

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