Book Review: Mariana by Monica Dickens

Mariana by Monica Dickens

Who doesn’t love Persephone books, I am yet to read a Persephone classic I haven’t loved.  With Mariana by Monica Dickens, I loved it even before I had read a word. Each time I picked it up the cover alone gave me a little spark of joy.  This is the kind of book which should not languish on a shelf but should be casually balanced on arms of sofas or placed on coffee tables for all to enjoy.

This is the story of Mariana (Mary) and her journey from a young girl living in a small flat in Kensington, spending idyllic summers in Somerset to a mature young woman married and living in an England which is at war.  Like many good stories this begins at the end and then takes us back through Mariana’s life and the events leading up the point where we first meet her, alone and waiting, in a remote cottage with the wind howling and rain pounding at the windows.

Mariana lives with her mother and her frequently out of work, but adoring uncle Geoffrey.   She spends her days in London longing for the school holidays when she and her mother will make the much anticipated journey to Charbury. An idyllic world of ponies and stern nannies, tea and cakes, endless sunny days, aunts and cousins and adoring grandparents, and plays and dressing up and of course Denys, the cousin who stole her heart.

“Denys swung on to the terrace and dropped the rabbits at Mary’s feet. ‘What do you think of the bag?’ he said with casual pride, and as she beamed up at him, a last burst of evening sunshine flung his long fantastic shadow across the terrace and flooded everything with a glorious amber light.”

Dickens manages the ups and downs of childhood so well.  We watch and on occasion cringe as Mariana navigates her way through adolescence, witnessing her insecurities and agonising moments of embarrassment. The time she spent at Drama School in her bid to be on the stage is particularly desperate.  She clearly cannot act, is regularly humiliated by her drama teachers and to the utter releif of her family (and also mine I have to say) eventually flounces out.

This was written at a time when women expected to be married and Marina is no different.  She often appears to be just biding time, certain that at some soon she will be married.

“Where was this somebody that was supposed to exist for everybody? She was nineteen and it felt wrong not to be in love”

Now I appreciate this may be an unappealing stance today, and if you are despairing about this, be heartened as in all good coming of age novels, Marina does grow and develop. By the end of the novel she has matured enough to see that she could indeed exist sans man!

“When you were born you were given a trust of individuality that you were bound to preserve.  It was precious.  The things that happened in your life, however closely connected with other people, developed and strengthened that individuality.  You became a person”

Monica Dickens is the great granddaughter of Mr Charles Dickens himself so she is of good literary stock and it shows.  She inhabits the world of Mariana with authenticity and lots of attention to detail. Her characterisation is strong; Pierre ‘the wrong one’ is amusingly dreadful, her mother Lilly is supportive and in the end inspiring. It is only Uncle Geoffrey with whom I felt a little disapointed. His initial spark and slightly louche behaviour fizzles out and as a character I rather missed him when he was no longer there.

This is a coming of age novel and if you enjoyed “I capture the Castle” by Dodie Smith or “The Dud Avocado” by Elaine Mundy I think there is every chance you will  love this

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