REVIEW: Mirrorland by Carole Johnston

A side view of a woman's face

Think of a funfair mirror hall: things appear magnified, often distorted, real, yet otherworldly. We see ourselves reflected, but it’s not us. It’s more than that; a distortion of the truth. And sometimes, things can appear so evident when the truth has been so twisted and memories so repressed, and we don’t want to confront the reality for ourselves.

Mirrorland

Carole Johnstone
Scribner
April 20, 2021

Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone

Childhood fantasies, mystery, crime, and gothic thriller entwine in Mirrorland. Carole Johnstone’s debut blends the brooding gothic skies of Edinburgh and the fantastic worlds of childhood imagination. Twins Cat and El have been estranged for twelve years — ever since Cat fled to Venice Beach in California. When Cat receives a call that El has disappeared, possibly presumed dead, she urgently returns to Edinburgh and Ross, her brother-in-law. There is history with Ross, a man she once loved, still loves, and who has dickmatized her for her entire life. Compounded into this is that El and Ross live in her former childhood home. In this home was Mirrorland, a ‘secret’ part of the house that generated a parallel world of childhood stories and ‘imaginary’ friends, an escape from their drunken, violent Grandad and protective mother upstairs.

But what if this fantasy was not all fantasy, and what if the reality was more unbelievable than recalled, where dark truths had been removed and replaced with happier memories? What if these two worlds overlap and are not so different, after all? What if one was a product of the other? And what was this childhood sanctuary really hiding?

Embedded in this estranged sisters’ story and their fantastic world is more insidious, dark, violent, and wicked. Mirrorland is a story of abuse and the lengths people go to protect themselves and their loved ones. It is also about the places (physical and mental) individuals take themselves and the memories they concoct to keep living, ease the pain, or forget about the past entirely. Sometimes these places are the same: a safe place sugar-coating a toxic environment.

Cat has all but suppressed a memory that occurred when she and El were twelve, the day they started their new life, and she has buried them away, locked the door, and thrown away the key by refusing to speak about her past. But the missing El left a treasure hunt for Cat, and it is only by following the clues into Mirrorland that the mystery of her disappearance can be solved.

The beauty of Mirrorland is that it plays with you. REALLY plays with you. The parts of the book centred in Mirrorland are a vivid, otherworldly fantasy. While I wasn’t sure how Johnstone would tie her many hanging threads, she weaves a compelling story that is a part sci-fi fantasy, part domestic abuse drama, part mystery. The narrative takes you down a variety of paths, and while some parts felt a tad contrived and a little expected, others appear much clearer in hindsight. It’s a connect the dots in many ways because it’s all laid out plainly for you to see, to follow as you go along. And in many ways, this is the beauty and effect of the book: you bypass things that are so obvious, staring you in the face the entire time, as Cat turned a blind eye to her past.

Mirrorland is a very effective, gripping debut which interrogates childhood fantasies and games and approaches them as coping mechanisms that can be dark, strange, haunting, and deeply harmful, as they eat away at you, destroy you from the inside out, for your entire lives.

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