Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone
Published by Scribner
Publication date: April 20, 2021
Genres: Childhood, Debut, Fiction, Mystery
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Cat and El are identical twins raised by their mother in their grandfather’s old, sprawling mess of a house. Their only friend was the boy next door. Both couldn’t wait to grow up and get away which is why when Mirrorland begins Cat lives in L.A. She hasn’t seen or spoken to El since they had a falling out over a decade ago. El, however, never left and Ross, the boy, is now her husband. He begs Cat to come back to Edinburgh to help find her, something she doesn’t want to do because the all-consuming love Cat once had for El has long since soured into hate.
The twins’ childhood is one of isolation as they are homeschooled and raised without television or radio. Instead, their mother reads them Grimm’s fairytales and then literary classics as they get older. She inoculates them the importance of their rarity as mirror twins, an occurrence even less common than identical twins. This, plus whatever unnamed dysfunction lurks in the house, leads them to have a overly developed fantasy life. Rooms in the house are renamed and repurposed as a cafe, a princess tower, a jungle, a ship, a prison. They’re populated with a vast cast of characters, like the Tooth Fairy, the Clowns, The Witch, Mouse, Belle, and Blackbeard. This is Mirrorland, where the girls invent fantastical and fearsome adventures with Ross. Adventures that Cat cannot untangle in her mind and that are invasive roots burrowing through the novel’s plot, obscuring present from the past.
Mirrorland is kitchen sink crazy. A completely inelegant summary, but it’s the best I can do with this genre-busting novel that throws everything at the reader. At 60% I was considering DNFing the book because the author was still imposing the childhood fantasy world on the present day. Cat is in the house as an adult and suddenly she’s on the deck of the ship she and her sister used to escape. The clues, the imagery, the level of detail in this world is exhausting as is the emotion it evokes in Cat. Everything is heightened, to the point of being numbing. At the same time, I didn’t stop and by 80% I couldn’t. Was I skimming the passages that annoyed me? Yes. But was I too far gone, gnawed by curiosity, to stop? Also, yes.
I don’t know the last book I read where I vacillated so much between a 2-star (OK) rating and 3.5 (really good). The novel has a glut of characters, all highly emotionally charged, and while they’re relevant to the story’s overall theme, their constant presence impedes its progress. A heavier hand with editing would have gone a long way to clearing the path for the ending and been less demanding on the reader. At the same time, I can’t ignore that, days after finishing the novel, I’m still shaking my head because this is one reality TV, train wreck of a novel. That’s a big compliment. If you’ve got the curiosity of a cat, and the mental stamina of a Sherpa, then Mirrorland pays off in a big way. No matter how or when you think you’ve got it figured out, you’re wrong. The surprises keep coming right up until the very end.
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