It’s brave of Louise Beech to make Catherine-Maria, the heroine of her new novel Maria in the Moon, so unlikeable.
Several times in the opening chapters I wanted to give up because it was just impossible to really care about Catherine.
Clearly, the woman had ‘issues’ but who doesn’t?
And, frankly it would have been a lot easier to feel sympathy for Catherine, if she’d felt a little less sorry for herself.
True, she’d had a difficult childhood: her mum died giving birth to her and her father died eight years later, leaving Mother, her dad’s second wife, to bring her up.
Unfortunately, though she tried her best, she and Catherine never quite hit it off.
All very sad.
But Catherine had her beloved Nanny Eve and a stepfather Graham, whose face was ‘a map of laughter lines that always led to a smile’.
Understandably Catherine’s feels resentful of his natural daughter Celine and mocks her ‘fancy’ name, calling her Sharleen instead.
It’s the sort of petty behaviour you’d expect from a mixed-up little girl, not from a 30-year-old adult who delights in winding up both her stepsister and stepmother.
That’s the point at which I decided: I really don’t like this woman.
So, why carry on reading?
Because Louise Beech (pictured here) is a cracking writer and the power of her prose kept the pages turning.
Great stuff like this: ‘I’d always known Mother wasn’t my biological mum.
‘I asked her once why she’d never had children with my dad or Graham.
“You were enough,” she said, and not in a way that suggested I brought the joy of ten.’
Or this, a few lines further down the page: ‘”Why do I have to help?”
‘It never took long for me to assume my role of whining daughter, my mother providing the boundaries every parenting book says should be created, if only to be kicked.
‘I was a rigorous kicker.’
And, it’s like that all the way through. Delicious, delightful observational asides that keep coming at you like frozen pellets in a hailstorm.
Memory and truth
And, little by little, the subtlety of Beech’s writing worms Catherine into your affections and the mystery of her unhappiness and edginess is gradually revealed.
Set in Hull in the aftermath of the devastating deluge of 2007, Maria in the Moon is an examination of the nature of memory and truth, and the defences people build to protect themselves when there is nowhere to hide.
The ultimate revelation wasn’t a complete shocker because there were plenty of clues along the way.
But we learn why Catherine can’t remember her ninth year, why her insomnia started, and, crucially, why everyone stopped calling her Catherine-Maria.
This is an extremely satisfying read and I’m looking forward to catching up with Beech’s previous novels How To Be Brave, which was a Guardian Readers’ Choice for 2015, and the sequel, The Mountain in My Shoe, which was shortlisted for the Not the Booker prize.
Review by Sue Featherstone.
Available to buy on Amazon.