I’m in the middle of Man Overboard by Monica Dickens and, rather to my surprise, enjoying it. I have very mixed feelings about Dickens. Some of her books I’ve loved (Mariana, The Happy Prisoner) while others I have considered a complete waste of paper and reading time (The Winds of Heaven and, to some extent, One Pair of Hands). These experiences have been enough to scare me off reading her other books for fear of what I should find. But it hasn’t stopped me from accumulating her books. Just this year I’ve picked up lovely hard cover editions of Man Overboard and The Heart of London. And now, with a courageous leap, I’m even reading one of them!
Man Overboard is the story of Ben Francis, a widowed naval officer of no particular distinction who finds himself released from the Navy with no particular aptitude or interest for any line of work. I’m only half-way through right now but have been impressed by Dickens’ effortless handling of the male point of view (something that she did brilliantly in The Happy Prisoner, too) and her fantastic minor characters. Chief among these is Amy, Ben’s ten year old daughter, whose ever-changing personality is tiresome for her father but entertaining for this reader at least.
We first meet her in the role of a meek, obedient milksop:
Amy, who was never the same child for more than few weeks at a time, was having one of her old-fashioned periods, when she called Ben Father, and was rather stiff and formal with him. Since it made her more docile too, in a beaten down Victorian sort of way, it was one of her easiest disguises to cope with; but it made her rather dull, and the lunch, which was a celebration of her tenth birthday, was not being very gay.
A few weeks later, she is a boisterous, jolly-hockey-sticks sort of schoolgirl:
Amy came noisily into the room in a thick blue school overcoat with the collar turned up. She had been playing in a hockey match. She was in the fourth eleven, and she was very sporting at the moment, because she was in love with a girl called Fiona Maclaren, who was captain of the first eleven. She wore her long bronze hair in tight pigtails and affected a slightly rolling walk.
And then, naturally enough, there are then moments where she can’t quite decide what kind of character is called for:
She had been keyed up to play the part of the tight-lipped hero’s daughter, or the fisherman’s child, waiting at the cottage window with her eyes glued on the storm-tossed sea.
In all these reincarnations, she feels more like a real child than the last hundred or so I’ve encountered in any book. I’m looking forward to reading on and seeing how many more personalities she assumes before we reach the end.