This is such a lovely novella. It's told from the perspective of young Barney, for whom his family is the center of his world. Barney adores his step-mother and is a bit in awe of both his older sisters, loud future novelist Tabitha and silent bookish Troy. Barney's real issue is that he is being haunted by a recently rediscovered grand-uncle, Cole but the way the haunting is dealt with is the way any problem a child of eight has is deal with, you tell your siblings and your parents and they help you.
The good stepmother, the decisive girls and the shy sensitive boy, all make for wonderful role reversals but Mahy doesn't overdo it either. The wonderful stepmother is pregnant and a stay-at-home-parent and the father is distant in a way that is no longer acceptable but was standard at the time. The family relationships are so complex you end up feeling you've read a saga when the book does not get even close to 200 pages.
“If people fainted from too much thinking I’d scarcely ever be conscious,” Tabitha began at once. “I think and think all the time, and I’ve never fainted – not once.” She looked over at Barney enviously. “Why do the best things always happen to other people and not to a promising writer?” 8
“Honestly, Tabitha, the sooner your novel is written and published the better,” Claire said crispl, seeing Barney was made uncomfortable by these comments. “No more talking about Barney’s faint. He’s better now – that’s the main thing.”
“Ok- let’s talk about funerals,” Tabitha replied at once. Page 9
“You won’t forget that,” Claire assured her.
“I like things written down,” Tabitha mumbled. “Then you’ve got them for good.” Page 15
“Fattening!” said Troy, looking at Tabitha’s round face and plump arms.
“If I don’t mind being fat, I don’t see why other people should feel they’ve got to mind for me,” Tabitha replied cheerfully. “And pies have got some food value – they’ve got vitamins or something, haven’t they, Claire?” Page 17
“Your Barney?” Cole’s eyebrows shot up. “Yours?”
“He’s mine all right!” Claire replied. “Everyone in this family belongs to everyone else – belongs with everyone else, rather. I’ve looked after him for a year now – ironed his shirts, made his school lunches, told him stories. I made that dressing gown he’s wearing, whereas no one knew you were alive this time last week. But what matters most is that he wants to be ours and he doesn’t want to be yours. That’s what counts.” Page 106
“…But don’t be late, Troy, or I’ll…” She hesitated and laughed, not entirely happily. “I don’t suppose I’ll ever need to worry about you again, will I? I don’t suppose I’ve ever needed to worry over a magician.”
“There are always car accidents,” Tabitha declared cheerfully. “A car could come around the corner and… wallop! You’d need a terrific magician to get out of that one…”
“Or eagles dropping tortoises,” Troy added, looking amused. “That happened in Ancient Greece, you know. An eagle dropped a tortoise on some dramatist and killed him.”
“No eagles or tortoises here,” said Tabitha, “but a bit could fall off a plane.”
“I don’t want to spin the world,” Barney said. “I don’t know what I want, but I do know it’s not that.”
“Nor do i!” Claire shook her head. “Poor Troy” If you can do almost anything, it’s all the harder to choose the right thing to do. Poor Cole, too – coming in like a lion and then staying like a pet lamb. I suppose if most of us were asked, we’d think that magicians would be free of care, but somehow or other there are always rules.”