Larwood House is a boarding school that houses many "witch orphans" - children of witches who have been burned at the stake. Therefore, when a note appears among some papers on a teacher's desk that says, "Someone in this class is a witch," it is an extremely serious accusation, for this is a world in which being a witch results in an immediate death sentence.
The narrative alternates among several of the students in class 6B. There's Nan Pilgrim, who is the butt of everyone's jokes, particularly in gym class, where she can never do anything right. When everyone learns that she is a direct descendent of the most infamous witch in history, her life goes from miserable to unendurable. There's Charles Morgan, who is a loner. He keeps to himself to the point of making up a code for the mandatory daily journal entry so that he can write about personal things without any of the teachers realizing what he's talking about. There's Brian Wentworth, son one of the Larwood House teachers, who is constantly being bullied by the very students all the faculty think so highly of. And Nirumpam Singh, who manages to successfully navigate his way through the complex social issues at the school - and seems to know more than he lets on.
Soon everyone is looking at everyone else, wondering who the witch can be. Because there is no doubt that very strange things are happening - from the dozens of unusual birds who suddenly fly through the music room window to the mysterious disappearance - and reappearance in an enormous jumbled pile - of hundreds of shoes owned by everyone at the school, faculty and staff alike. An inquisitor will be called in - and inquisitors possess devices that can immediately and infallibly identify a witch - who will inevitably be put to death, even if he - or she - is only a child. Chaos ensues, resulting in an hilarious and suspenseful roller-coaster ride to the finish.
I read this one aloud to my children (7 and 9) as a fun pre-Halloween read, and we all enjoyed it. They had some difficulty keeping the many characters straight, however, especially at the beginning of the book. The plot is action-packed with lots of twists and turns, and they always clamored for more whenever I had to close the book. They also had a lot of fun speculating about who was the witch and why. We had some great conversations about it, and it was fun to watch them take clues from the text and run with them. This is a funny, exciting read, and it also explores important issues such as prejudice and the danger of false accusations and malicious rumors, which face children(not to mention adults), even in nonmagical worlds.
While this book stands perfectly well on its own, it is probably best to read the Chrestomanci books in the order listed below. This was a reread for me, and I'd actually forgotten it was part of the Chrestomanci Chronicles (much to my children's annoyance when I admitted it), so I will go back and read them the others in the proper order. Reading - and rereading - Diana Wynne Jones's books is always a treat!
Books in the Chronicles of Chrestomanci (This is the order in which Diana Wynne Jones recommends they be read):
1. Charmed Life
2. The Lives of Christopher Chant
3. Conrad's Fate
4. Witch Week
5. The Magicians of Caprona
6. Any of the short story collections
7. The Pinhoe Egg
Witch Week (#3 in The Chronicles of Chrestomanci) by Diana Wynne Jones (Bullseye Books, 1982)
Also reviewed at:
Other B&OT reviews of Diana Wynne Jones's books:
The House of Many Ways
The Pinhoe Egg