Shelf Care: Escape into the world of Howl's Moving Castle

Howl's Moving Castle was turned into an acclaimed 2004 film by animation legend Hayao Miyazaki.
Howl's Moving Castle was turned into an acclaimed 2004 film by animation legend Hayao Miyazaki.PHOTO: GREENWILLOW

Howl's Moving Castle

By Diana Wynne Jones
Greenwillow/ 1986/ 429 pages/ $17.53/ Available here

The novels of British author Diana Wynne Jones, with their fantastical worlds, have been my go-to escapist reads from a young age.

And unlike many of the books I loved as a child, they have retained their magic into my adulthood.

Most of her novels are brilliant, but Howl's Moving Castle remains my favourite for its whimsical world-building and its sensible heroine.

It was turned into an acclaimed 2004 film by animation legend Hayao Miyazaki. Yet, somehow, the book is still better.

Sophie Hatter's life as a small-town milliner is upended when she accidentally falls afoul of the vindictive Witch of the Waste and is transformed into an elderly woman.

Seeking to reverse her curse, Sophie starts keeping house for Howl, an allegedly heartless wizard who lives in a roving castle.

Its door can open onto four different locations - from a bustling port city to fields of flowers - and is powered by a cranky fire demon, Calcifer.

The book may be for children, but it is very well-plotted. The curse at its heart is based on the John Donne poem Song (Go And Catch A Falling Star), with the impossible things in the verses - mermaids singing, mandrake roots bearing children - gradually becoming literal. Solving it makes for a delightful puzzle.

It also gently subverts fairy-tale tropes. Sophie, the oldest of three sisters, expects to be sidelined by destiny, as adventure is reserved for youngest children, but slowly discovers she is quite powerful in her own right.

Howl, who maintains a reputation for devouring the hearts of young women, is not in fact wicked, just a very melodramatic narcissist.

There is no love at first sight here, just two very competent people engaging in banter as they try to save kingdoms, keep their house clean and so on. This is the ideal novel for anyone who wishes they could turn the doorknob, open the door and be somewhere else altogether.

Shelf Care is a twice-weekly column that recommends uplifting, comforting or escapist books to read while staying home during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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