I can’t remember now who recommended Aunt Maria to me. If it was you, speak up! I thought for sure it was Jenny at Jenny’s Books, because we share a love of Diana Wynne Jones, but now I can’t find a review of this book on her blog, so I’m unsure. But whoever it was, thank you.
Aunt Maria is the diary of Mig (Naomi Margaret, but she prefers Mig) Laker. Mig’s father dies mysteriously, his car crashing over Cranbury Head, and after his death, Mig’s mother decides to pay a duty visit to his old Aunt Maria in Cranbury. When Mig and her mother and her brother Chris arrive, Aunt Maria immediately puts them to work, cooking, cleaning, and entertaining her many elderly friends. She doesn’t make demands. She doesn’t have to: she just talks and talks, and somehow Mig always finds herself doing Aunt Maria’s bidding. Her friends are eerie: sharp-eyed women who police the town from behind lace curtains. The men are featureless, grey zombies. There are no children in Cranbury except what appear to be clones in a huge orphanage. And there’s a ghost in Chris’s room, who appears to be looking for something.
At first, when I started this novel, I was afraid that it was going to be less complex and interesting than I was accustomed to from Diana Wynne Jones (author of one of my very favorite young adult novels ever, Fire and Hemlock.) Mig’s voice is young, and the style is a bit simpler than I’m used to. But I needn’t have worried. As the tendrils of the plot begin to creep into the interstices of the diary, it becomes clear that something very evil indeed is happening in Cranbury — something ancient and magic and complicated. By the end of the book, I thought I might well have to read it a second time to understand it completely.
And this is what I love most about Diana Wynne Jones’s books. Like some of the other great British children’s fantasists (Susan Cooper, Penelope Lively, E. Nesbit), Jones never writes the same book twice. In each of her books, she has an entire world of magic that you have the impression of seeing only in glimpses, and understanding only in fractions. She unfolds only so much of the mystery as you need to be intrigued and dazzled, but never enough to be bored or even, really, to understand completely. (I’ve probably read Fire and Hemlock ten times and I’m still not sure I get all of it.) And, like those other authors, she understands to the very bones what it feels like to be a child or teenager. The way adults are embarrassing and mysterious and yet you love them fiercely. The shame when you make a foolish mistake. The frustration of not being allowed to do important things because you’re not old enough, when you know you’re old enough. She has it, every bit.
I loved Aunt Maria. But to be honest, you could start almost anywhere with Jones’s work and enjoy it just as much. Take a few home with you and see where she takes you this week.
*** Or, wait and see where she takes you the first week of August! I just visited Jenny’s Books and she’s hosting a Diana Wynne Jones week! In which I will certainly participate. What fun.