“Mariana” by Monica Dickens

Normally I get annoyed with the first few pages of a novel, and have to be coaxed into the author’s world; with this book I was hooked at the start, raving about the prologue of Mary in her Essex cottage hearing that her husband’s ship has been sunk; One Day is a love story ending with the unexpected death of one of the lovers; “Mariana” ends with a lover’s unexpected survival – much more satisfying. It’s superbly written in every sense: Dickens’ style is extremely easy to read yet in no way simple – a wide vocabulary and complex sentences are no barrier to the reader’s progress. And you feel in an expert’s hands: the first chapter gives one such confidence in the author’s ability to take you where she wants you to go.

And it is pretty much a straight story, the episodes of Mary’s life teetering dangerously near a kind of grown-up What Katy Did Next. Dickens lets the implications of her story emerge for themselves, but sometimes, mainly on p226 and a few times afterwards, has her heroine muse on the lack of control one has over one’s one life, and how one’s attempts to piece together life’s jigsaw are normally less effective, and less successful, than life’s own efforts; other people, other events, sort things out despite our efforts. This modest philosophizing moves centre-stage at the book’s close, when a miraculous chance, beyond anyone’s control, sets Mary up for apparently inviolable future happiness – the jigsaw is done.

Her structure, and how she leads the reader into, and then out of, Mary’s memory of her past, is masterful. For example, towards them novel’s end, when we begin to surface into happiness, Mary takes Sam to her malevolent old Gran, who starts playing the role of an intolerant grandmother from a novel Mary remembers. And soon afterwards Sam comments that their relationship is so happy that no one would ever write a book about it; this rather arch note is allowable because its ironic light: most of Dickens’ book has been about Mary’s unhappy relationships, and hence (QED) respectable material for fiction. But these literary touches are light and deft: overall the novel succeeds because of its straightforward qualities: description, characterisation and structure.

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