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‘Lonely Castle in the Mirror’ by Mizuki Tsujimura

Lonely Castle in the Mirror (かがみの孤城), written by the Japanese author Mizuki Tsujimura and translated to English by Philip Gabriel, is a magical and moving coming-of-age story that was published by Doubleday only a couple of weeks ago. The novel won the Japan Booksellers’ Award in 2018 and has been lauded and praised by many since. I was planning on reading it as soon as I heard about it, so when the English translation was announced I was over the moon with joy.

English version published by Doubleday on April 22nd, 2021.

Before we get on with the story and my thoughts on it, it’s worth mentioning that this is a YA novel and its protagonists are junior high schoolers and not adults. It has already been likened with the quirky tales of Sayaka Murata (author of Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings), while the Guardian has called it “the offspring of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and The Virgin Suicides” (cannot find a link, but this quote is all over the internet), but I feel both those comparisons don’t do the book any justice and only serve to mislead and possibly disappoint the reader who comes expecting something along the lines of the aforementioned books. As long as you know what sort of story this is, you will be able to truly enjoy it for what it is.

Lonely Castle in the Mirror borrows many western fairy tale elements and creates a whimsical and enchanting story that will certainly tag the heartstrings of many readers. If I had to compare it to another novel, that would definitely be The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, although Lonely Castle goes in an entirely different direction.

Set in modern day Tokyo, the novel recounts the story of Kokoro (meaning ‘heart’ in Japanese) Anzai, a 13 year-old girl who, after a rather traumatic event that has left her unwilling to go to school, one day discovers that the mirror in her room is shining in a peculiar way. Upon examining the mirror, she gets transported through it to a castle, where she meets six more children around her age, as well as the Wolf Queen, who seems to be the person in charge. The Wolf Queen gives them about a year to find a key which will grant only one of them a wish. However, after the wish is granted, all of them will forget about the castle, the moments they have spent there and one another. The children can enter the castle through their mirrors at any moment they want, but they are forbidden to spend the night there, although they each have their own rooms in the castle. If they overstay, then the wolf will come out and devour them.

As the story progresses, we learn more about each teenager, all of whom refuse to go to school for their own reasons, and we follow them as they get to know one another and discover that they are not alone in whatever they are going through. The narration is in third person, but we follow Kokoro’s point of view as she reveals more and more about the incidents that made her unable to go to school, and as she unravels the mystery of the castle along with her new friends.

I really loved the fairy tale elements and the magical atmosphere that Tsujimura creates, as well as the way she uses those fantastic elements to talk about real-life problems that many of us will have also experienced as teenagers. Through the themes of friendship, bullying, losing people close to you, social insecurity etc., Tsujimura explores what it is like to be an outsider, to not be able to fit it and to find friendship and meaningful connections even when you least expect it.

Japanese cover of the novel, originally published in May 2017.

There is also the underlying mystery of the castle and its goings-on, which I also found quite interesting (can never resist a good mystery!), although I was able to figure out most of its solution pretty early on. It definitely gave the novel a unique flair, though, engaging the reader and keeping them eager to uncover the mystery. I also really liked the seven teenagers, I thought they were all unique and I was eager to know more about their specific circumstances and what led them to be invited to the castle.

Lonely Castle in the Mirror is almost a 400-page novel, and I have to admit that it does drag on at times, especially during the middle. The writing is simple, as is the case with many Japanese novels, so if you’re looking for flowery and poetic language, this book is not for you. The translation is very well done (as is to be expected by a renowned translator like Gabriel), but there are still some nuances and cultural differences that readers may need to be aware of when reading. For example, in many scenes we see Kokoro or the other children staying silent and not talking back when scolded or reprimanded, even if they are not in the wrong. Although this attitude isn’t very common in the western world, it is quite common in Japan.

According to the Publisher’s Note at the end of the book, Japanese children’s mental health is second to last among 38 developed and emerging countries, a fact that is shocking and alarming, yet one that makes this book even more important for all the teenagers and young adults that are going through difficult times for one reason or another. No wonder, then, that Tsujimura’s novel resonated with so many young Japanese people, and I’m certain it’s going to equally resonate with many young people outside Japan as well.

Literature has the power to pull you out of the darkness, even momentarily, offer you consolation and company, and show you that most problems have solutions. The castle in the mirror was a much-needed escape for Kokoro and the other six teenagers, a way out of their gloomy daily lives and unbearable circumstances, much like what literature and even more so fantasy literature is to all of us. However, while providing this escapist quality, the castle (and fantasy) equips the children with the necessary means to pluck up their courage, face their fears and dispel what makes their reality unbearable. In the end, this is exactly what this book does, too – it works as an anchor, as a speck of light, as a warm hug that gives its readers the necessary courage to fight their own battles and face their own unpleasant realities, creating their own path in life.

Overall, Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a wonderful and magical tale, deeply rooted in reality despite its fairy tale and fantasy elements. It’s a heart-warming and touching novel that will resonate with many, regardless of their age, as we can all see a part of ourselves in Kokoro, Aki, Rion, Masamune, Ureshino, Subaru or Fuka, the seven students.

This also serves as my first post for this year’s Wyrd & Wonder, the month-long event that runs through May, celebrating fantasy and the fantastic. If you’d like to learn more about it and sign up, head over to this post.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

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‘The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’ by Mathias Malzieu **

I expected that Mathias Malzieu’s novel of magical realism, The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, would be both quirky and charming, and full of whimsy.  It is described as ‘a dark and tender fairytale spiced with devilish humour.’  I have had the novel on my to-read list for years, and was very excited when my slim hardback copy arrived.  However, my overwhelming feeling about the novel is one of disappointment.

9780701183691The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart has been translated from its original French by Sarah Ardizzone, and opens in Edinburgh in 1874.  A baby named Jack is born to a very young mother, and is found to have a frozen heart.  He is given an operation, in which the unconventional Dr Madeleine ‘surgically implants a cuckoo clock into his chest.’  The novel’s first sentences set the initial tone, although they do give a feeling of fairytale and wonder, which is not carried through the entire book: ‘Firstly: don’t touch the hands of your cuckoo-clock heart.  Secondly: master your anger.  Thirdly: never, ever fall in love.  For if you do, the hour hand will poke through your skin, your bones will shatter, and your heart will break once more.’

The novel is narrated by Jack, and follows his infatuation with an Andalusian girl made of fire: ‘Almost without realising it, I’m falling in love.  Except I do realise it too.  Inside my clock, it’s the hottest day on earth.’  Dr Madeleine, who becomes his guardian after his mother abandons him, worries that love will be a dangerous experience, and that his heart will be quite unable to take the strain.  She tells him: ‘Your cuckoo-clock heart will explode.  I was the one who grafted that clock on to you, and I have a perfect understanding of its limits.  It might survive the intensity of pleasure, and beyond.  But it is not robust enough to endure the torment of love.’  Jack’s narrative voice rarely feels authentic when he is supposed to be a child, and there is little change within it as he reaches adulthood.  There is next to no character development within the novel, which is a real shame.

The initial descriptions which Malzieu gives of Edinburgh are highly sensuous: ‘Edinburgh and its steep streets are being transformed.  Fountains metamorphose, one by one, into bouquets of ice.  The old river, normally so serious, is disguised as an icing sugar lake that stretches all the way to the sea.’  Other descriptions too verge upon the breathtaking: ‘… the hoarfrost stitches sequins on to cats’ bodies.  The trees stretch their arms, like fat fairies in white nightshirts, yawning at the moon…’.  Whilst the descriptions of both place and people are by turns lively and inventive, it did not seem to me as though the rest of Malzieu’s writing quite stood up.  It is when the narrative moves from Scotland to Spain that such descriptions start to suffer; they become relatively few and far between, and feel a little repetitive in what they pinpoint and express.

On initially viewing the dustjacket’s design and reading the blurb, I would have thought that The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart would be a suitable book for a child to read.  It seems not, however; there are several marked references to sex, and some quite coarse language at times too.  One of the fundamental flaws of the novel for me was that it did not appear to know exactly what it wanted to be, and there was too much going on at some points, and not enough at others.  It felt inconsistent, and did not hold my interest once its initial few chapters had passed.  I had qualms with the modern feel of the dialogue, which did not fit with the chosen time period at all; the historical detail was also rather patchy, and there are a few clumsy mistakes to be found for the eagle-eyed reader.

There are certainly some interesting ideas at play here, and I particularly admired the inclusion of Georges Melies, a real-life figure whose playful short films I love.  It did not quite come together in my opinion, however, and felt markedly peculiar.  It was difficult to immerse myself within the story, and it certainly loses momentum at points due to its inconsistent pacing.  The fairytale elements which are emphasised within the book’s blurb are relatively non-existent.  The translation was fluid, but regardless, I ended up disliking more about the novel than I liked.  The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is what I imagine literary steampunk would be like; of marked interest to the right reader, but not really of appeal to this one.

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Mini Reviews: ‘The Robber Bridegroom’, ‘Girl Number One’, and ‘Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror’

The Robber Bridegroom by Eudora Welty ****
‘Legendary figures of Mississippi s past-flatboatman Mike Fink and the dreaded Harp brothers-mingle with characters from Eudora Welty s own imagination in an exuberant fantasy set along the Natchez Trace. Berry-stained bandit of the woods Jamie Lockhart steals Rosamond, the beautiful daughter of pioneer planter Clement Musgrove, to set in motion this frontier fairy tale. For all her wild, rich fancy, Welty writes prose that is as disciplined as it is beautiful.’ 9780156768078

There is nothing quite like a Southern Gothic fairytale, and there is also nothing quite like Eudora Welty’s writing. After reading the fabulous correspondence between Welty and William Maxwell, I sought out a couple of her volumes from my personal collection, and spent a morning with The Robber Bridegroom. From the beginning, there are elements of the Brothers Grimm – as one might expect, I suppose, given its title. In fact, the novel (novella?) begins almost like a bedtime story, in that it is set in a place far, far away some centuries past, and the narrative voice is lilting and lovely. Welty’s writing is sometimes simple but always intelligent, and her story builds marvellously. Her character descriptions also ensure that vivid beings spring to life from the page.

The Robber Bridegroom is one of the most inventive and original novels which I believe I have ever read. Welty has such a hold over her characters and settings, and everything is beautifully evoked.

 

Girl Number One by Jane Holland *
9781503938212As a young child, Eleanor Blackwood witnessed her mother’s murder in woods near their farm. The killer was never found.  Now an adult, Eleanor discovers a woman’s body in the same spot in the Cornish woods where her mother was strangled eighteen years before. But when the police get there, the body has disappeared.  Is Eleanor’s disturbed mind playing tricks on her again, or has her mother’s killer resurfaced? And what does the number on the dead woman’s forehead signify?’

I am getting more and more into thrillers of late, and downloaded this from Netgalley as the premise sounded interesting. Alas and lackaday. I found it cliched from the very beginning. It had the usual girl-with-traumatic-past-goes-running-excessively-in-order-to-try-to-put-said-traumatic-past-behind-her. It doesn’t work, obviously. The ‘thrilling’ part of the book ensues once excessive running and whiny narrative voice has been established (which takes far longer than it should, let’s be honest), which is predictable enough to not be thrilling at all. Not that well written, and honestly, if you’ve read Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood, you probably don’t ever need to pick this up. It seems to follow the same style, just without the wedding party in the woods thing, and is a lot less enjoyable to boot.

 

Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley *** 9781408802762
‘Uncle Montague lives alone in a big house and his regular visits from his nephew give him the opportunity to retell some of the most frightening stories he knows. But as the stories unfold, another even more spine-tingling narrative emerges, one that is perhaps the most frightening of all. Uncle Montague’s tales of terror, it transpires, are not so much works of imagination as dreadful, lurking memories. Memories of an earlier time in which Uncle Montague lived a very different life to his present solitary existence.’

Chris Priestley’s work appeals to me, even though I’m a grownup and should probably have left the realm of children’s books behind me when I left my teens. Saying that, children’s literature is magical and wondrous and unpredictable, and I don’t want to lose those qualities; they are just as important for grownups, in my opinion. If I therefore want to read a children’s book I will do so, and I will do so proudly; hence my wish to pick up Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror.

I love Gothic fiction, and from the beginning I was reminded of Neil Gaiman and Colin Meloy’s Wildwood series. The scope of the tales here is broad; I admired the way in which one could not quite guess where the story was going. It perhaps goes without saying that these stories are beautifully illustrated too.

My three-star rating is the result of two things; firstly, that some of the stories were better than others, but I expected as much to be the case when I began; and secondly, that it lost quite a bit of momentum as it progressed. Even though the stories were different, and contained different people, the characters had shared attributes on the whole, and were presented in quite similar ways. Perhaps due to the format of the novel, the sections featuring Edgar and Uncle Montague seemed very samey too. A good book, but perhaps a little long; not a series I will be continuing with, I’m afraid.

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