Years ago, I watched the Japanese anime by Hayao Miyazaki made from this book. I loved the movie. And I loved the book, although it took me years to read it. Both book and movie are quirky and magical. In all my fantasy reading, I’ve never read anything quite like this story. If I applied artistic epithets to this short novel, I’d say it was painted in pastels.
The book is rather slow moving. Sophie, a young unassuming girl, lives in a town of Market Chipping (what an inventive name) with her stepmother. She helps her stepmother in their hat shop. They both like and respect each other – no wicked stepmother trope there.
Suddenly, when Sophie is alone in the shop, an evil witch comes through the door and puts a curse on Sophie, making the seventeen-year-old look and feel 60 years older. Sophie doesn’t know why it happened or what she has done to deserve the curse, but she has no choice but leave home. Nobody would recognize her now.
Her helpless anger with the witch doesn’t have any outlet. A sensible girl that she is, she doesn’t indulge in it for long. She makes the best of the situation and travels aimlessly through the countryside, dreaming of a chair in front of a fire to warm her aching bones, when she comes upon the roving castle of the feared wizard Howl. She decides to make her home there.
For some reason, Howl lets her stay. The curse wouldn’t let her tell anyone that she has been cursed, so instead of wallowing in self-pity, she makes herself useful: she started cleaning Howl’s strange ‘castle’. She also makes friends with the castle’s odd inhabitants and discovers its many secrets. And she learns that everything is often not as it appears, especially where wizards are concerned.
The story is a bit fragmented, following Sophie and her new friends in their daily lives without an overall destination, but the tale's charm and faint humor more than makes up for the seemingly mundane line of episodes. Then comes the finale, and the reader realizes there was a destination after all. It was just concealed, camouflaged, like about everything else in this magical moving castle.
The romantic curlicue between Sophie and Howl is as original as everything else in this deceptively simple story. They never say the L word. The bicker constantly. He flirts with other girls and throws tantrums when crossed. She grumbles and scrubs and sews. The reader reads and smiles.