MIRRORLAND by Carole Johnstone

Cat lives in Los Angeles, far away from 36 Westeryk Road, the imposing gothic house in Edinburgh where she and her estranged twin sister, El, grew up. As girls, they invented Mirrorland, a dark, imaginary place under the pantry stairs full of pirates, witches, and clowns. These days Cat rarely thinks about their childhood home, or the fact that El now lives there with her husband Ross.

But when El mysteriously disappears after going out on her sailboat, Cat is forced to return to 36 Westeryk Road, which has scarcely changed in twenty years. The grand old house is still full of shadowy corners, and at every turn Cat finds herself stumbling on long-held secrets and terrifying ghosts from the past. Because someone—El?—has left Cat clues in almost every room: a treasure hunt that leads right back to Mirrorland, where she knows the truth lies crouched and waiting…

Mirrorland is Carole Johnstone’s debut novel, which seems remarkable given how accomplished the writing is. The prose is beautiful and engaging, at times heartbreaking. It’s an emotionally complex novel. The relationship between the two sisters is nuanced and believable. The story cleverly blurs genres so that it’s not quite as straightforward as a domestic noir novel, and yet not quite as oblique as dark fantasy. To its credit it completely manages to work as both, and yet by so deftly blending them, it elevates it beyond either category. The writing style is confident and authoritative, the plot development well paced, weaving seemingly unimportant details into the story one bit at a time until the reader slowly begins to see the full picture. The characters felt rounded and their back story tragic. There are some nice twists and turns and the narrative is captivating and imaginative. Mirrorland, as a concept, is so vividly recreated it makes me wonder whether there was some element of autobiography at work here. Perhaps I’m not giving full credit to Johnstone’s imaginative power. It’s a rich location, offering plenty of nods to other aspects of fiction, especially the work of Stephen King. I particularly enjoyed the parallels to Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, and Mirrorland makes fine use of them as both an anchor to the story and as analogies to the girls’ lives. I have no hesitation in recommending this book. Carole Johnstone has written an assured debut novel, one that heralds in an exciting new voice to the genre of dark fiction.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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