Diana Wynne Jones once again combines eccentric characters, moral ambiguity, magic, time travelling, shapeshifting and an uncanny ability to portray human behaviour in one of her best books: "Aunt Maria". With all the twists and turns that we expect from Wynne Jones, "Aunt Maria" is one of the most re-readable and enjoyable books in her vast collection.
After the accidental death of their father, Naomi "Mig" and Chris Laker are reluctantly taken to Cranbury-on-Sea by their mother to visit Aunt Maria. Maria appears to be a cuddly old lady (though is constantly ringing up and meddling in their lives), but once they get to their house the siblings find that she is much worse. Behind her compliments and manners is an old lady determined to get her own way - for instance, when she says "I won't bother with breakfast, now Lavinia's not here to bring it to me in bed," she means: "I demand breakfast in bed."
Cranbury itself is just as bad: the women flock around Maria in daily tea-parties like she's their Queen-bee, whilst the men work like zombies and the clone-like children spend their days in an orphanage. Enigmas pile up on all sides: who is the ghost haunting Chris's room? What happened to the previous maid Lavinia? Why does Maria despise the elderly Phelp neighbours? What is contained within the beautiful green box Mig finds? And could it be possible that the children's father actually reached Cranbury on the day he supposedly died?
All the answers to these mysteries are brought together beautifully as the book progresses - but not before Mig must deal with the battle of the sexes in the town, the fact that her brother has been turned into a wolf, the mind-manipulation being dealt upon her mother, and Maria's own sinister designs for her! For such a slim volume it is jam-packed full of interesting ideas, plot revelations and clever ideas.
Diana Wynne Jones usually prefers males as her protagonists, but after reading Mig I hope that in the future she creates more female ones, as she's one of the funniest, sympathetic, self-aware and utterly helpless heroines I've ever read - and despite her complete lack of doing hardly anything proactive or helpful throughout the book, she's an utter delight. Also on hand is her brother Chris who is far more outspoken than she, and doesn't hesitate to insult anyone he pleases. Throughout the story the bond between the siblings is strong, realistic and immensely touching - as when the transformed Chris seeks out comfort from his sister.
Mrs Laker is also nicely created, as is the sinister Elaine, but of course the centrepiece of the story is Maria herself. Self-righteous, self-pitying, hypocritical, intensely annoying, and yet a pleasure to read about, this is one character that's impossible to describe: you'll have to read in order to really appreciate what Wynne Jones has created. The family's way of handling Maria is the author at her hilarious best, and the closest another author has come to capturing the sheer loathsomeness of Maria is J.K. Rowling (who by the way, has almost certainly read this book) and her own villainess Dolorous Umbridge.
As well as this is the intricate and well-paced plot, which includes a huge number of characters, events, magical implements and ideas. The time-travel sequence in particular is marvellously created, and I'm certain it was the inspiration for Harry Potter's similar experience in "The Prisoner of Azkaban." Most wonderful of all is her ability to take human relationships and explore them in depth - in this case it is the way some use guilt and the rules of manners in order to get their way.
I would say that "Aunt Maria" is my favourite Diana Wynne Jones book out there, but so many great titles are out there that I wouldn't want to limit myself to just one. In any case "Aunt Maria" an immensely enjoyable book - and if there are any film-makers out there, it would also make a brilliant movie: hint, hint.