“And I won’t bother with breakfast, now Lavinia’s not here to bring it me in bed, dear,” was Aunt Maria’s final demand. Mum promised to bring her breakfast on a tray at eight-thirty sharp. It’s a very useful way of bullying people. – Black Maria, Diana Wynne Jones
My current copy of Black Maria is also my first copy, which is kind of rare when it comes to my DWJ books – but then again, I don’t think I’ve ever lent it out before. I received my copy from a classmate back in high school. Even now, I wonder about it – we weren’t close, and it wasn’t a special occasion, but one day she presented me with the book with a note saying she knew I loved Diana Wynne Jones. (As a result, she is one of the very few classmates I still remember now.) Anyway, the first time I read it, I thought – how gloomy. Diana Wynne Jones’ books aren’t exactly all cheery, and books like Homeward Bounders are pretty dark, but the gloominess of Black Maria struck me deeper, probably because it was a gloominess I knew all too well from my own childhood.
Another thing about Black Maria is that even though it was first published in 1991, it was really written before The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988). Since I’m reading in published order, I figure I may as well make a note of that here. In “A Whirlwind Tour of Australia” (published in Reflections), Diana Wynne Jones wrote that unlike some of her other books that were published long after they were written, Black Maria was suppressed by her. The reason? It was too frightening. To me, it isn’t a direct sort of horror – it is that utter gloominess, a claustrophobic sort of dread and resignation that comes with having to live with someone like Aunt Maria.
Mig Laker and her brother Chris had never met their father’s Aunt Maria, not until his sudden death. Then, after a series of phone calls from poor, frail Aunt Maria who reminds them that they were her only family left, their mother takes them to Aunt Maria’s for a holiday.
It didn’t take long for the Lakers to realise that Aunt Maria – who appears to be so cozy and cuddly – rules the village of Cranbury-on-Sea. She’s the queen bee, flanked by the twelve women who live down the street. All the men might as well have been zombies in suits. And all the other children seem like clones, even if they don’t resemble one another physically. On top of that, there’s a ghost haunting Chris’ room, and a cat that looks uncannily like one of Aunt Maria’s previous servants.
For most of the book, you get the feeling that something is off, and that it was more than Aunt Maria’s pretense at frailty to manipulate everyone around her, and more than the enforced gender stereotypes that made all the women tending to Aunt Maria and the men “away” all the time. Mig played along at first, letting her brother take the active role (as a boy, he was encouraged to be outdoors while Mig had to help her mother look after Aunt Maria). But as Chris’ attitude towards Aunt Maria gets more and more rude – providing for some of the best laughs in the book – and Aunt Maria gets more awful but in this unbearably SWEET way until she finally does something to get Chris out of her way for good. This forces Mig to take the lead, to uncover the truth about the people of Cranbury-on-Sea so that she could find a way to get her brother back.
The whole story is written from Mig’s point of view, so it is only from here onwards that we truly see beyond the tea parties and coziness to all of the darkness running underneath. I love that Mig’s adventure recalls some of my favourite fairy tale tropes but of course, this being a Diana Wynne Jones book, everything is flipped over and nothing is what it seems. I had remembered this book as a horror, and in my reread I realised that it’s not REALLY horror, but it’s got elements of horror. And it has SF elements but it’s more of a fantasy – reading it, I remembered DWJ’s mentions of not wanting to be boxed in by genre in Reflections. I guess it gets claustrophobic, just like the villagers of Cranbury-on-Sea being forced into specific male/female stereotypes. I really hate the whole “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” mentality, and loved the way it’s treated in this book. In the end a person is a person, and a good book is a good book, and Black Maria makes a great Halloween reread.
* published as Aunt Maria in the US. Sadly, both US and UK versions are out-of-print now.
**reread earlier in the year, but reread again for the RIP Challenge.