Mariah’s Dream by Grace Bridges.
Review by Lee Murray
I read Mariah’s Dream quickly last year, when it appeared on the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Awards ballot, but because there was a lot of material on the reading list, I didn’t get around to reviewing it, which meant I’ve now the pleasure of reading it a second time. And the second time around, Mariah’s Dream is as satisfying and thought-provoking as the first.
Grace Bridges’ dystopic tale is set in a near future, in Ireland, where history is repeating itself and the people of Belfast are dying of starvation. The crops fail, this time by design, when a ‘terminator gene’ is introduced by a government regime as a means to oppress the people. Mariah has already lost her mother, her brother is mouldering in a work camp, and now, on the eve of a breakthrough which might save them all, her best friend is being deported by the regime. Amid the turbulence, outspoken and resourceful Mariah becomes the unwitting leader of the Guild, a group which just might turn out to be the world’s best chance of survival.
Yes, my synopsis looks like something you’ve read before. But Mariah’s Dream is more than just another YA dystopia. Bridges is a talented writer, invoking a sense of place that simply sweeps you up and takes you there. Her Ireland is vivid and squalid, vibrant and vicious. It’s a potent mix, and even if Mariah’s Dream is not your genre, if an Ireland with cyborgs isn’t your cup of tea, her work is worth a read just for the beauty of her prose:
Belfast lay grumbling under a late afternoon shower, soft rain. Gentle daylight seeped from thick clouds and fell upon the old red-brick buildings and the potholed streets.”
The more modern buildings, once pretty with glass facades, stood as scattered skeletons of their former selves.”
It was almost night now, the sea and sky a deep blue-black. The old trees rustled softly, their roots somehow so far underground that they were able to cling to life despite the dead topsoil.”
Rows and circles of people danced back and forth on cracked tarmac to the skirl of a tinny fiddle and deep bodhran played by a lively senior couple.”
Like I said, gorgeous prose.
I don’t want to drop any spoilers, but one question I kept returning to after reading Mariah’s Dream, was if I were to meet my darling again, under different circumstances, would we fall in love, and indeed, would we stay in love? Is there really such a thing as a soul mate? If I were foisted into a parallel universe, or made a leap through time, or fell into a dream, what is the likelihood that I might find my husband again, and if I did, would we feel the same connection? It’s not a new concept, but it’s an idea that Mariah’s Dream forces readers to question, and the answer isn’t always that comfortable, something Bridges makes no apologies for. In Mike Newell’s 2010 blockbuster, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, when Prince Dastan hands the bejewelled dagger of time to the Princess Tamina, viewers are encouraged to believe that the pair will re-connect because their destinies demand it. And since the story is about the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy, and viewers have already seen the beautiful ones kiss, the romantics amongst us will frame the ending in that way. But what if we were to take destiny out of the question? What if we were the authors of our own destinies, able to write the plot outline for our own life narratives, stories in which we cross time and space to seek out our soul mates in some other dimension, some other life? Under those circumstances, would we still feel the same? Surely, after the coup de foudre, after the oxytocin has dissipated and you are faced with the everyday domesticity of life with someone, love is about shared experiences, and building on those experiences. In that case, does the second time around, where those experiences might be different, call for a different person? What might the future hold for Bridges’ central character, Mariah, for example? When the book opens, her life is full of horror, the people around her starving and desperate. Then, the moment of salvation appears, and the survivors are struck down by disease. Naturally, these tragic and determinative experiences shape Mariah’s dreams in many ways, but wouldn’t they also shape her relationships? There is no doubt that Mariah’s Dream has had me thinking, and isn’t that the essence of any good writing, to provoke and engage?
The only aspect of the story which didn’t suspend disbelief for me was the ongoing narrative of the dog, Rufus. I loved him in the opening scene, the starving mutt a metaphor for the disaster which has befallen Belfast, but as the story progressed I found his advanced reasoning and ability to understand English made him less credible. I came to see him as a technical device, rather than a character to invest in. And, to me, his mention at the end of the novel, while poignantly written, felt slightly Disney-esque, as if Bridges felt compelled to put him there because readers would surely find him likeable and heaven help her if she didn’t! Of course, I’m only one reader. Others have cited Rufus as their favourite character, claiming that the book would not work without him, his central narrative serving to tie together several complicated story threads.
Mariah’s Dream is the first novel in The Vortex of Eire series, which also includes 8 optional self-contained short-story prologues, but it stands alone, so my suggestion to readers would be to sample this first title and make your own decision about reading further stories in Bridges’ world. I expect those readers who like a challenging character-driven story with techno aspects and an expansive sense of place will choose to read on. Recommended.
How far would you chase hope?
What if you could change the world?
The green has gone from Mariah’s Ireland. Every garden and field that was once lush with crops is now lifeless muck. And yet Mariah holds one seed…the seed of hope.
Together with Liam, her staunchest supporter, Naomi the biologist, Deborah, whose son sold out to the Senate, and Peter the farm boy, she sets out to make Ireland green again. That is Mariah’s hope. It is Mariah’s dream.
Mariah’s dream will change everything.
Disclaimer: Grace Bridges is a friend and colleague of several year’s standing, and in that time we have served on various committees and convention panels together.