A House Without Mirrors, by Marten Sanden, for Timeslip Tuesday

A House Without Mirrors, by Marten Sanden, illustrated by Moa Schulman, translated from the Swedish by Karin Altenberg (Pushkin Press edition March 2017) , is sort of a Swedish Gothic magical house story for middle grade readers.....It is possible that if you read this, you will find it beautiful and moving.  Or you may find it beautiful and aggravating, like I did.  I have given parts of the plot away here (actually pretty much the whole plot with all its twists), so if you think you are going to find it beautiful and moving, you should stop reading this now and go read the book instead.

Thomasine and her father are waiting for her great-great-aunt to die, staying in her strange old house along with her father's sister and his brother, and their children-one girl and boy younger than Thomasine, one girl older.  None of adults are grieving for the coming death; Henrietta is barely there at all, lying in bed waiting to die day after day.  None of the children are grieving for her either. 

But there is sadness in plenty among the group stuck there in the large house (which strangely has no mirrors in it), rattling around getting on each others nerves.  Then the littlest girl, Signe, finds a closet to hide in, where all the house's mirrors have already been hidden.  And Signe finds that she can make a change happen, that takes her to a mirror-wise version of the house, where there lives a little girl named Hetty.  She shows Thomasine the trick of it, and Thomasine goes to visit Hetty several times, and each time the strange girl is a bit older....The two other cousins get their turn in the closet, and emerge changed, for the better, able to move beyond the stuckness of their own bad times into a more hopeful engagement with life.  And at the very end, Thomasine takes her father to the other house, and he gets to hold Thomasine's tragically dead little brother one last time, and finally move through his crushing grief and guilt.

So that description kind of makes it seem as though the mirror-filled closet is sort of a hand portal of therapy, and it kind of is.  But it is also a time travel portal, because of course Hetty is Henrietta, and in a time-slipness reminiscent of Tom's Midnight Garden, Hetty is growing up.  Some people writing about the book have referred to Hetty as a ghost.  This does not seem to me to be the case, because on her last visit with Hetty, Thomasine makes a scrapbook of pictures with her that she then finds, old and antique, in Henrietta's house in the present, which is a clear case of time travel. It's rather magical, although Hetty and her time don't actually get much page time, and Hetty doesn't get any personality, which I felt aggrieved about.

I also felt aggrieved in a more explicitly critically way that there was more reliance on metaphor and imagery than there was on actually having explanations for all the weird therapeutic attributes of the magical mirror closet.  Whenever I encounter a closet full of mirrors that is whisking people to alternate times and mirror-image houses, returning them to the present with their mental health restored,  I like to know a bit of its backstory.  Someone, probably Henrietta, put the mirrors there, and I'd have liked to have had her reasons spelled out a bit more than they were (I feel the spelling out that was there was sort of a random sprinkle of disjointed letters on the far side of a busy street sort of thing).

More succinctly-- when there is magical therapy going on, I feel it should be supported with a bit more story specific to how it is working.  The story felt to me like mental healing ex machina(closet).

I feel comfortable expressing my frustration because the book won the Astrid Lindren Award in 2015.  Clearly, it has been loved by many, and I myself found things to like:

1.  It is very vividly written.  The reader shares in the claustrophobia of the big house meant to be full of life live large and now inhabited by small, sad, twisted persons.  Lots of good details.
2.  Though small sad and twisted out of true, Tomasine and her family are not unlovable
3.  The mirror closet of time warping is really cool.

But it didn't work for me.  And I'm not sure it will work with 9-12 year old readers, who I think prefer more active resolution of problems than this offers.  I have a feeling, though, that lots of grown-ups might find it very moving...

I just went over to Kirkus to check their review of this one ("A thought-provoking read that will linger long after the last page"), and am now am aggravated (mildly) afresh--just because there is a closet in the book doesn't mean it will remind readers of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this very honest review. It sounds like an interesting book, but I probably won't put it very high on my TBR list.


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