Perhaps everyone’s childhood memories are the same: part truth, part fantasy.
But this house turned our imagination into a melting pot, a forge. A cauldron.
I can trust nothing that came out of it.
No. 36 Westeryk Road, an imposing flat-stone house on the outskirts of Edinburgh. A house of curving shadows and crumbling grandeur. But it’s what lies under the house that is extraordinary – Mirrorland. A vivid make-believe world that twin sisters Cat and El created as children. A place of escape, but from what?
Now in her thirties, Cat receives the shocking news that her sister has disappeared. Forced to return to Edinburgh, Cat finds herself irresistibly drawn back into Mirrorland. Because El has a plan. She’s left behind a treasure hunt that will unearth long-buried secrets…
I used to read and review a lot of thrillers but, if I’m honest, it’s been a while since a ‘thriller’ really thrilled me in any way. Until, that is, Mirrorland came along and kept me on the edge of my seat and up turning the pages long after I should probably have turned out the light.
Mirrorland is the story of mirror twins Cat and El, and of the imposing Edinburgh townhouse they grow up in at 36 Westeryk Road. Behind it’s seemingly ordinary façade, 36 Westeryk Road is home to Mirrorland, a vivid make-believe world of populated by pirates, cowboys, and jailbirds- Bluebeard and Blackbeard, the brave and handsome Captain Henry, and the aptly named Mouse. It is also an occasional home to Ross, Cat and El’s next-door neighbour, honorary crewmate, first crush, and secret friend. Mirrorland is a place of magic – and a place of escape. But escape from what? Or from who?
When El goes missing, Cat is forced to return to Westeryk Road, to Ross, and to Mirrorland. Because while everyone else might think El is dead, Cat knows she’s alive – and that she has a plan. Someone is emailing Cat with clues: a treasure hunt that will lead her straight back to Mirrorland – and back into childhood memories that she has buried deep within herself.
Mirrorland is a novel suffused with unease and tension. From the very beginning, the reader is thrown into a confusing world of Clown Cafes and Princess Towers, and it is unclear which characters are real and who has been plucked from the fragments of Cat’s childhood imagination. And it is clear from the first page that beneath the imaginative magic of Mirrorland, something very dark is hiding.
Whilst I don’t want to give any spoilers, I do want to provide some trigger warnings because the novel confronts issues of child abuse, rape and sexual abuse, domestic violence, drug abuse, mental trauma, coercive control, gaslighting, alcohol abuse, and mental illness. Although never gratuitous or overly graphic, the truth behind Mirrorland is very dark indeed and the novel is a testament to the power of the imagination and the many and varied ways that the body – and the mind – will try to protect itself from trauma.
Although a somewhat unreliable protagonist, I became utterly drawn into Cat’s world – and into the world of Mirrorland – very quickly. Although occasionally difficult to sympathise with, I could understand Cat’s resentment of El, her fascination with Ross, and her wish to leave the past firmly in the past. The relationship between sisters Cat and El is definitely at the heart of Mirrorland. As an only child, I find novels about the intricate mix of love and jealousy that occurs between siblings fascinating – and Carole Johnstone coveys the tangled web of affection. loyalty, and resentment between Cat and El fabulously.
I was slightly less taken by the relationship between the two sisters and Ross which did, sadly, conform to a lot of the tropes of the genre. Unfortunately this meant that, for me, some aspects of the ending descended into cliché, which was a huge shame given how fresh and original the rest of the plot felt. This is not to say that I did not enjoy the ending of Mirrorland – it packs a real punch and there are some very dark revelations that I didn’t see coming – but, for me, the final third of the book was less compelling.
For me, Mirrorland is at its best when it is operating as a mystery. I was compelled by Cat’s struggle to mine the fragments of her memories, and by the contrasting landscape of Cat and El’s make-believe world with the gradually revealed realities of their childhood. The magical yet oppressive neo-Gothic atmosphere of Mirrorland is vividly conveyed on the page and, for me, the writing was definitely at its best when exploring this brilliantly realised world of imagination.
As I said at the start of this review, it is a long time since a thriller thrilled me. But whilst some aspects of the ending didn’t quite land with me, Mirrorland definitely succeeded in keeping me reading – and in making for a thrilling read. Combining a well-crafted mystery, a unique premise, and the compulsive readability of a thriller, Mirrorland is an impressive debut that is sure to appeal to fans of Tana French, Ruth Ware, Erin Kelly and Sarah Pinborough.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 01 May 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.
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