Aunt Maria

Oh, Diana Wynne Jones, how I love thee.

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.

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17 Responses to Aunt Maria

  1. Study Window says:

    I’ve loved Wynne Jones ever since I first found ‘The Power of Three’ in the school library I’d been given to run over thirty years ago. My dilemma is that I’ve read everything she’s written and there’s nothing left to go at. Never mind, I can simply start again and re-read them all.

    • Jenny says:

      And she’s still alive (though I hear she is ill) so we still have a chance for more! One of my very favorite authors, Laurie Colwin, died very young, so her few novels are all I’ll ever have. I portioned them out very carefully!

  2. Nymeth says:

    This is one of my absolute favourite DWJ books. SO brilliant, so funny, and so smart. Of course, it doesn’t top Fire & Hemlock, but what possibly could?

    • Jenny says:

      I agree with everything you just said! Ana, maybe it was on your blog I read about Aunt Maria. If so, thank you!

  3. Jenny says:

    I could have sworn I reviewed Aunt Maria recently – I read it earlier this year, and I remember I did because I was surprised by what a clever book it was. It had been a while since I read it last, and I hardly even remembered the whole gender war aspect to it. Guess not though – anyway I’m glad you liked it! I love how Aunt Maria gets her way by being sweet and making implications.

    • Jenny says:

      The whole gender thing was so well handled. Another aspect where I thought I wasn’t going to like it and then I loved it.

  4. Jonathan S says:

    A bit of trivia: the British (and Australian) title was Black Maria named, I believe after the Queen of Spades in a card game that my family called Rickety Kate. The US publishers changed the title, presumably expecting that the original title would be read as racial.

    • Jenny says:

      I read that the title had been changed, but the racial implication didn’t even cross my mind. I’m sure you’re right, though. Queen of Spades, indeed!

  5. Kathy says:

    This is a great review! I don’t think I’d even heard of DWJ before, but now I want to try a book of hers!

  6. Kristen M. says:

    I really liked Aunt Maria too. Maria made me incredibly angry which is always something I find amusing when I read. And I felt like it needed a second read too because it was so complex by the end!

    I just finished DWJ’s newest book, Enchanted Glass, with a review going up on Monday, I think. Loved, loved, loved it! It’s one of my all time favorites. (Although I haven’t read Fire and Hemlock so I will go put that on my library list right now!)

    • Jenny says:

      I agree about Maria making me angry! What a great book, to inspire such a reaction. I haven’t read Enchanted Glass yet. I’m really looking forward to it (though there are actually quite a number of DWJ books I have left in front of me, and Deep Secret is next on my list.)

  7. How exciting to find another DWJ fan! She is so sadly unappreciated in this country. I’ve been a huge fan since I read Dogsbody, back when I was in middle school. I’m sorry to say I haven’t read all of her books yet, but based on the raves I’ve put both Fire & Hemlock and Aunt Maria on reserve at the library. But they don’t have Enchanted Glass yet — I may have to buy my own copy.

    Have you read Howl’s Moving Castle? It’s my other favorite. The companion volume, House of Many Ways, is also good.

    • Jenny says:

      What is it about DWJ being less-appreciated here? I also read Dogsbody in middle school (and Homeward Bounders) and fell in love. I am sure you will adore Fire and Hemlock.

  8. Anonymous says:

    woww keren

  9. Pingback: Black Maria by Diana Wynne Jones | Iris on Books

  10. Pingback: Black Maria by Diana Wynne Jones | dreaming out loud

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