Author: Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Johnny, Caspar, and Gwinny are pretty much convinced that their new step-father is the worst thing that could have happened to him; he’s grumpy, demands quiet all the time, doesn’t understand children at all, and gets angry at the slightest things. The three siblings actually call him “the Ogre” when he’s not around to hear. The Ogre’s two sons, Douglas and Malcolm are fairly high on their “worst things” list as well–stuck up prigs that they are. But there’s nothing like a good distraction to keep your mind off your troubles, and the Ogre inadvertently provides the best distraction possible: two chemistry sets (one each for Johnny and Malcolm) that have some most unusual effects. Giving the ability to fly, just for instance. . . . Soon all five children are way out of their depth, experimenting with all sorts of combinations to see what magical effects they can achieve–and trying to clean up the unexpected results!
With her classic good sense and amazing writing, Diana Wynne Jones produces another magical (in all the best senses of the word) tale in The Ogre Downstairs. Although this is an older story (copyright 1974), it’s full of the excellent characterizations, beautifully accessible writing, incredible observation of people, and neverending sense of wonder and adventure that mark, well, all of her works that I’ve ever read. I found it intriguing that, in this story, rather than the usual buildup to a huge finish toward the end, the pacing is more gradual with more seeming to happen right from the start. It actually reminds me of an Edith Nesbit story somewhat, what with the magic chemistry set providing the catalyst for all sorts of rather episodic adventures. Everything ties together beautifully though, which is something I’ve always admired about Jones’ writing. And the characters are wonderful–the kids avoid being stereotypes and are people you can relate to easily, yet each of the five has an individual personality that is kept quite distinct. Very artistically done. My sole complaint, and the one reason this isn’t a 5-star read in my opinion, is that some of the Ogre’s actions were construed, in my mind at least, as being outright abusive–as opposed to a bit ornery and unaccustomed to children but generally well meaning, which I think was the intent. Part of that is the children’s perspective, part is that this is a 70’s story and things were seen differently then, and part is that I work with kids and am trained to be unnaturally sensitive to that sort of thing; however, even with those explanations, the situation was enough to bother me, especially with the ending being what it was. Still, on the whole, even considering that issue, I found The Ogre Downstairs to be a very enjoyable children’s fantasy that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys Jones’ books (or Edith Nesbit’s or Edward Eager’s, for that matter).