Tag Archives: polio

Book Review Saturday – ‘Marianne Dreams’

You might remember this high-octane drama from a couple of weeks ago, where I enlisted the help of all y’all all over the Internet to help me track down a book I’d read and loved as a tiny person, but whose title I couldn’t remember. I had no idea of the author’s name, either. All I could remember was a mysterious drawing of a house, with a person inside one of the upstairs windows, and a malevolent ring of standing stones outside, keeping the prisoner captive.

Just like this, in fact! This is a still from the 1990 movie 'Paperhouse,' based on the book 'Marianne Dreams.' Next on my list of things to track down. Image: landofcerptsandhoney.blogspot.com

Just like this, in fact! This is a still from the 1990 movie ‘Paperhouse,’ based on the book ‘Marianne Dreams.’ Next on my list of things to track down.
Image: landofcerptsandhoney.blogspot.com

Well, in case you missed it, the sorry saga had a happy resolution. I found the book, and immediately whisked off an email to my ex-colleagues in my favourite bookshop, and a few days later it plopped through my letterbox.

I think I lasted about two hours before I started doing that whole ‘new book smell!’ thing.

You know the one I mean. Image: thesmellofbooks.com

You know the one I mean.
Image: thesmellofbooks.com

After that, it was only another couple of hours before I had it digested.

So. Was it as good as I’d remembered?

Well. The short answer is ‘no’. That’s not to say it isn’t a fabulous book – because it is, absolutely. I still love it as much as I ever did, because the feeling it gave me as a child is still there, crackling away at the base of my skull. The terror it inspired in my eight-year-old self will never leave, and that, of course, is a brilliant thing. Reading it as an adult does let me see it in a different light, of course, one which points up all the things that could now be seen as faults and flaws – the gaps in the story, the fact that all the characters sound the same, the repetition, the telling and showing and then telling a bit more – but the best thing about finding it again is this: I can still understand, very clearly, why this book stuck with me for the best part of thirty years. I am so glad I found it again, and that I can put it up with my other favourites, the books which shaped the person I am today.

Straight away, we are introduced to Marianne, who starts to feel really unwell on her long-awaited tenth birthday. Her temperature spikes, her appetite disappears, and her worried mother summons the doctor. Her birthday dinner is thrown away uneaten, and the celebrations stop.

Marianne is quite seriously ill.

Confined to bed for weeks on end, unable to even cross the room to pick up a book to read, she grows more and more irritable and frustrated. Catherine Storr, the author, conveys Marianne’s pain very effectively, and we really feel for this small girl, cooped up indoors with bright summer weather streaming in her windows. She gets used to doing things from bed, which includes helping her mother sort through her great-grandmother’s old antique workbox, in which, one day, she finds a pencil. It’s not a particularly beautiful or well-made pencil; it simply looks friendly, and easy to draw with, and helpful. This is the pencil, Marianne thinks, which will make my visions come truthfully out of my head, through my fingers and onto the page.

And so she draws.

The first thing she draws – for it is always the first thing she draws – is a house. It is, she thinks, as unsatisfactory as ever. Lopsided, windows misaligned, out of proportion. But she gives it some trailing smoke from the chimney, adds a fence and some standing stones, some tall whispery grass, and some large flowers.

When Marianne dreams that night, she is standing in a wide open field full of swishing, long grass, and a house – a strangely familiar house – stands before her, surrounded by a fence and a jumble of standing stones.  She goes through the gate and up the garden path, and right up to the the front door of the house – but it has no knocker or bell, and she feels desperately sure that she must get inside. Something about the wide prairie landscape all around her makes her afraid. But her small knuckles get bruised against the wood of the door, and there’s nobody inside the house to let her in. Put someone in the house, a whishing, mysterious voice tells her.

Back in her own world the following day, Marianne makes a few adjustments to the house. She adds a face at the upstairs window, and she places a knocker and letterbox on the front door. Her great-grandmother’s pencil draws well – and, as she learns, it cannot be erased.

In her next dream, Marianne returns to the house. She notices a small pale face in the window upstairs, and when she knocks a boy opens the window. He is Mark, who is trapped inside, unable to walk. ‘I can’t get downstairs,’ he tells her. ‘There’s no staircase in this house.’

So, the next day, Marianne adds one. Eventually, she manages to get inside the house, and every time she dreams she and Mark try to figure out where they are, and why he’s trapped. Every day in her ‘real’ life, Marianne draws the things Mark needs – a bed, some food, a bicycle to help his polio-wizened legs to strengthen – and every night they plot their escape.

Then, one day, in a fit of irritation at Mark, Marianne adds eyes – narrowed, peering, cruel eyes – to the stones outside the house, and then the trouble really starts.

There are some genuinely chilling moments here, particularly in relation to the spying stones and the voices the children hear, warning them that they must escape and that they’re being pursued; I can totally see my tiny self reading with trembling hands as the children’s attempts to get away from the house are described. Marianne’s ‘double life’, and the fact that Mark exists in her ‘real’ world, too, mean that the book is interestingly layered and textured; the realities of polio, and the horrors of that disease and the effects it had on the children who suffered from it, are sobering. I loved the childlike logic that dictates Marianne’s choices of what to draw next, and their rather ingenious plan of escape, and I loved the horror that still fizzes through the pages.

The fact that everyone sounds like a middle-aged businessman is a bit of a disappointment, but that’s to be expected from a book first published in 1958, I suppose. There’s lots of ‘my dear girl,’ ‘awfully sorry,’ ‘frightfully kind,’ and that sort of thing.

In short, if you’re willing to overlook the fact that this book sounds a little dated, I would say track down a copy and give it a go. It’s unlike any other children’s book I’ve ever read, and – if for nothing else but the sheer imagination needed to dream it up (no pun intended) – it’s worth a try.

Still from 'Escape into Night', a TV miniseries adaptation of the book from 1972, showing Marianne (Vikki Chambers) and Mark (Steven Jones) inside the upstairs room of the house. Image: werewolf.co.nz

Still from ‘Escape into Night’, a TV miniseries adaptation of the book from 1972, showing Marianne (Vikki Chambers) and Mark (Steven Jones) inside the upstairs room of the house.
Image: werewolf.co.nz

Love = Risk

I’ve just seen a wonderful Tweet from one of my literary idols, Jeanette Winterson, in which she used the phrase ‘Love = Risk’. I’d been searching for a title for today’s blog post, and when my eye fell on her words, I knew I’d found it.

(By the by, if you’re not familiar with Jeanette Winterson’s work, I really can’t recommend her more highly. Every book she writes is a perfectly crafted jewel, and she does things with language that most people can’t even dream of. The first Winterson book I read was ‘Sexing the Cherry’, which was on a course I did at university – I read it, loved it, and have never looked back. I think my collection of her work is pretty much complete now!

book jacket Sexing the Cherry

But this is all preamble. If this blog post had an editor, I’m sure she’d tell me to cut out all the waffle, and get to the point.

Here’s the point, then.)

Yesterday evening, I watched a beautiful programme on BBC which followed the early life of a lady named Mary Berry, who is a ‘celebrity’ chef in the UK and, in recent years, in Ireland too. I say ‘celebrity’ because she seems a very down-to-earth and unpretentious woman who would probably not relish the drama that goes with being a famous face, and this programme about her life gave me a real insight into where she gets her grounded outlook and her dedication to her family and her craft. She grew up during World War II and was raised in a large house in the English countryside, with parents who gave her everything they possibly could and did their best to ensure she had a happy childhood.

One aspect of her younger days touched me very deeply, however. At one point in the programme, she recounted her relationship with her father, and she spoke of the fact that she and her siblings had spent their childhoods being afraid of him. He seemed an aloof and cold figure, one who believed children should be seen and not heard, and a man who didn’t relish physical contact or shows of affection. Later in the programme, she was given the opportunity to look over some of her medical records – she suffered polio in the late 1940s, along with thousands of other young people in Britain – and a photograph, clipped from a newspaper, was shown to her. It was of her father, and Mary herself, shortly after she’d been released from hospital as a 14-year-old girl. She’d never seen the image before, and was extremely moved by it. Her father is seated on his horse, and Mary stands beside him. He is looking down at her with an expression of such love and devotion, with such soft and caring eyes, that it took Mary by surprise. In the photograph, she’s not looking at her father, and so his expression is lost on her. But the expression on her face as she gazed upon the image of her father, she now far older than he was when the picture was taken, was extremely touching.

This lady had grown up not really believing she’d been loved by her father, just because he was unable to show her how he felt. Her father must have been a man moulded by his time, a time when fathers didn’t show affection and when children weren’t always treated with tenderness. This doesn’t mean that those feelings of love weren’t there – but for silly societal reasons, people didn’t feel free to show their loved ones how much they meant to them. I found it sad that it had taken so long for Ms. Berry to finally see the love her father had for her, but the joy on her face as she realised that, all along, she’d been a treasured daughter was a beautiful thing to witness. I’m sure her father realised how lucky he and his wife were to be able to take their child out of hospital alive, and mostly unmaimed by the illness she’d suffered, and his joyful love was evident in the photograph. Perhaps, though, he could only let his love show in his face when he knew he couldn’t be seen by the object of that love.

Loving someone does involve a huge amount of risk, whether you receive that love in return or not. In fact I think love that is returned to you, or a love you share with someone else, can involve more risk than love which is unrequited. You’re risking being hurt – because nothing makes you more vulnerable than being in love – and you’re risking the person taking their love away, and leaving you in pain. If your love isn’t requited, your risk-taking is limited – unless, of course, your beloved discovers how you feel. In the case of Ms. Berry’s father, perhaps he feared being seen as less of a man if he allowed his children to see how much he loved them, and perhaps that was a risk he couldn’t take. He’s not the only father to have fallen into that trap.

But the risk is always worth taking. The pain of having your heart broken, of taking the risk to love someone and show it, can’t compare with the pain you might cause someone by loving them so secretly that they never know. In the context of a familial relationship, providing a child with things isn’t the same as telling them you love them. In a marriage, taking your spouse for granted by assuming they know how you feel about them is not usually a good idea. It’s worth taking the risk of looking a bit of a soppy fool by telling them you love them every once in a while. Isn’t it?

Love = Risk. It has always been, and will always be. I’m not the world’s greatest risk-taker, but this one’s worth it. Don’t you think?