Eight-year-old Mariken is considerably younger than most of Van Gestel’s main characters. She lives in a time like the Middle Ages and her story was inspired by a miracle play well known in the Netherlands. A foundling, she was raised by an old eccentric, who, besides teaching her the laws of nature, also taught her to read. All her knowledge of human existence comes from the chapbook Mankind Is a Farce, but when Mariken goes out into the world in search of a new goat, there appears to be much, much more out there.
In the company of a troop of itinerant actors, the girl has breathtaking adventures and experiences the security of living among rough actor folk, who become a kind of family to her, presenting one of Van Gestel’s favourite themes: the importance of the relationship between parents and children.
Mariken gives a colourful, more or less historical picture of overcrowded inns and market squares, of superstitious people whose lives are ruled by fear of the plague, the devil, and witchcraft. The oral tradition blossoming at that time is illustrated by openly recounting the most bizarre events. The heart of the book, however, consists of the lovingly drawn portrait of an uninhibited child, the archetype of innocence, feeling her way through an unknown world.
As always in Van Gestel’s writing, the reader can enjoy the animated dialogues and the polished, almost aphoristic sentences Mariken uses to question those around her about God, love, death, and the soul. This in particular testifies to Van Gestel’s exceptional ability to capture the large view in small words.