Mahy's characters so individual that almost every word they say elicits an affectionate smile and a thrill of rightness, a fond certainty that that is *just* what he or she would say even though you could never have produced the sentence yourself. Barny and his family are smart, witty, and generally enjoy bickering with each other in that friendly way happy families have. Mahy's writing is wonderful, her dialogue brilliant, her descriptions evocative and imaginative, the pattern of her syllables satisfying and energetic in the mouth or the ears. This would make a wonderful read-aloud book but I have to put in a few words for the cassette.
The cassette is amazing. Many readers stretch their vocal ranges, trying to give each character a distinctive "voice." Often this interferes with the flow of the text, forcing the reader to speak in ways which sound both uncomfortable and unnatural and masking the author's talents in distinguishing her characters through their choices of words and syntax. Others take a steady tone which seems detached from the text. This tape does neither. Richard Michley is a superb reader who responds perfectly to the rhythms of each character's speech without getting in their way showing off his own vocal control. He becomes a perfect medium for the story and its characters.
The story itself is fascinating. It's a bit scary in places but never superfluously so and the fears it presents are rooted in and comment on the fear of real children in real families even while the fantasy heightens and brings them out. It is a story about one generation of a family and what it and its members do with the pain and madness left over from a past they weren't part of. It is a story about defining one's self as part of a family even while you learn about yourself as an individual. Barny, our protagonist, finds himself haunted. Ghosts speak to him, visions present themselves on his eye-lids, a different, fierce being looks out of his eyes, endangering the life that "had just settled down to be the sort of life he was enjoying, and did not want to change for anything a ghost could offer him." As the haunting continues, he begins to realize that he is afraid not of his mysterious great uncle Cole, who is organizing the haunting "but of his need and purpose," a need that drives him to extremes to redefine Barny's life in order to explain and validate his own. Afraid of upsetting the balance of his family, Barny does little about it, only telling one of his sisters after extreme provocation and cajoling. It is this sister who sets out to uncover the mystery. This is a fantasy story, a story of magic, but for Tabitha learning the source of her brother's troubles isn't a matter of crystal balls or epic quests but of "ask[ing] questions and find[ing] out things," of worrying over whether or not to break "her double-promise," visiting her relations, and worrying if she'll be able to walk her little brother home from school. And it is these details that Margaret Mahy gets so right. While magic creeps in to disturb her world, it is a world built out of the intensely familiar. everyday details of car key searches, and school lunches, and the love of a family and it is these, along with a new dose of truth, which hold it together as the past threatens to tear it apart.
This is one of the best books I read as a child, or rather listened to. I started getting it out of the library at about five (younger than I would recommend though I loved it) and took it out several times a year from then through middle school. I bought a copy of the tape a few years ago and it's as good as ever. This is a book that respects the intelligence and aesthetic abilities of children and my parents still love it too, which is pretty impressive given how many car trips it got us through.