The page was pure and certain, words were uncertain, but their uncertainty was what made them magical.
– Margaret Mahy, ‘The Tricksters’
There are three kinds of books from my childhood: the ones I found for myself, the ones given to me by somebody else, and the books I absorbed by osmosis, the books I can’t remember reading for the first time because they were always there. Margaret Mahy’s The Pirates’ Mixed-Up Voyage is one of those.
I think it must have been read aloud to me at some stage – introduced to my system, so to speak – but all I remember is the endless re-readings, the feeling I always come away with of having been on a journey, the satisfaction of a perfect ending and that slight sadness of having finished something I wanted to last forever. That’s what it’s like to read a Mahy book. I was raised on them, on stories of mandrakes who eat gingerbread and children who hide in pianos, villainous runaways who open restaurants, leaves that turn into dogs, headmistresses who disappear into a hurricane and turn up forty-odd (very odd) years later. I loved the highly literate parrots in Raging Robots and Unruly Uncles, the use of white walls as blank pages in The Blood-and-Thunder Adventure on Hurricane Peak, the married mermaid and cherry-eating stepmother in Leaf Magic. I read the Cousins Quartet and wanted tights hand-painted with suns and stars, and ice cream for breakfast.
I don’t know when or why I stopped reading new Mahy novels – it wasn’t because I outgrew them, because that is psychologically impossible for sane and healthy people – but I probably found something else. I wandered down a different path. It was only this year I started actively looking for her stories again, finding classics I’d somehow missed after that tangential junction, like The Tricksters (in which I fiercely believe Harry ends up writing Felix back into the world when she’s ready) and The Changeover (which couldn’t quite match up to falling for a ghost in the unconventional romance stakes but won me over with kingfishers appearing from the future and demonic rubber stamps). I even borrowed a biography of Margaret Mahy from the library. Reading about the mad beauty of her life, I thought she sounded the kind of person I’d love to meet.
I will never have the chance. Margaret Mahy died on Monday at the age of 76. She leaves behind a legacy of remarkable books and affectionate memories – the exuberant charm of her personality that comes so vividly through her writing was by all accounts exactly what she was like in person too, the writer who’d turn up for school visits in a penguin suit or rainbow wig, the woman who made her life one long adventure. There are beautiful obituaries already online, but this isn’t one of those. I’m not a personal friend who can talk about what she was like, or an academic who can define exactly what effects her books had around the world. All I can talk about is the effect they had on me. And that’s simple, really. Every time I read her books, I believe in magic.
She rewrote the world. She still does, because for many years to come, forever I hope, people will be picking up her books and getting lost in them. Past tense can’t apply to authors like her. Through the pages of the books she wrote, she will still be remaking reality for whoever reads her words.
In a Mahy book you will find the strange and extraordinary made real and tangible. You will see a landscape of wild colour, an explosion of joyous chaos. But what makes her imagination so special isn’t just the mandrakes, the pirates, the magicians and tricksters. It’s the everyday people and places she imbued with beauty and power. It’s the ordinary world she made extraordinary.
Margaret Mahy, you see, was a magician. And that’s what magicians do.
It’s a strange kind of grief when a favourite author dies, someone you’ve never met but whose words are an integral part of your mental landscape. We’ve lost too many of the greats in recent years – people like Diana Wynne Jones and Lloyd Alexander – people who, in a just and fair world, would be made immortal so as to keep writing forever. They pass the baton into precarious, uncertain hands. The foundations on which the world of books is built quake, but we don’t fall. While books like theirs, like Mahy’s, are the cornerstones holding us up, we never will.