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A system of mirrors

Author: Philip Womack
Newspaper: The Times Literary Supplement
Date: Oct 12 2018

In Christelle Dabos’s debut young-adult novel A Winter’s Promise, the heroine, Ophelia, has a brace of magical talents. When she touches objects with her bare fingers she can “read” their past owners’ lives; she can also travel through mirrors.

Using a mirror in fantastical fiction is akin to casting a spell to invoke a host of literary reflections. Perseus sees his own face superimposed upon Medusa; Narcissus gains self-knowledge; mirrors bring wisdom and passage to other realms. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson transformed his first two names into Carolus Louis, and then flipped them to create his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll. In Alice through the Looking-Glass, the eponymous heroine traverses over the boundary into the mirror world, where she finds the enantiomorphs (reflections of each other) Tweedledum and Tweedledee. She discusses with them Bishop Berkeley’s thesis that we are all ideas in God’s mind:

“Not you!” Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. “You’d be nowhere. Why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!”

Alice’s quest is for truth. Dabos’s Ophelia, named, perhaps, for the apparently innocent qualities of her Shakespearean predecessor, is an Alice-like character, a bourgeois who embarks on a journey into the arcane and the aristocratic.

Ophelia’s world, at first, is a kindly one. She has a job in a museum, “reading” the past histories of objects that have survived a mysterious Rupture which has split the world into several Arks, each one ruled by an immortal “family spirit”. The people on Anima, where she lives, are one enormous family – everyone calls each other “Cousin”. Their powers extend to animating objects, and Ophelia has a scarf with its own somewhat unpredictable personality. There are no servants or hierarchies, bar the matriarchal Doyennes who, like the Bene Gesserit sisterhood in Frank Herbert’s Dune, organize weddings and manipulate bloodlines.

One of the stranger things about this novel is that despite the prominence, if not predominance, of women in the ruling classes, females are treated like chattels. When Ophelia is ordered to marry an uncivilized man from another Ark called the Pole, she is warned: “However he makes you feel, I advise you never to set your will against that of your husband. You’ll end up with broken bones”. This is hardly interrogated, and the structure and themes of the novel seem to reinforce silence. Women vie for the position of concubine to the Pole’s male spirit; the plot contains attempted rape, the poisoning of several women and the physical imprisonment of Ophelia herself, who also spends most of the novel pretending to be a mute boy called Mime. When she speaks as Ophelia, she is gentle and demure. Mime, therefore, is not a symbol of her treatment by a masculine oppression; but a logical extension of her own reclusive nature. Here is a description of some minor characters, who “lived up to their names. Patience always showed level-headedness; Joy made light of everything; Melody saw everything as a pretext for a work of art; Grace attached the utmost importance to appearances . . .”. These background women have no character at all, only the names attached to them.

The men, though, are hardly different. Ophelia’s fiancé, Mr Thorn, is a taciturn, bear-like man, who refuses to tell her anything and never smiles. The marriage element of the plot draws strongly on “Beauty and the Beast” and “Bluebeard”; and also on Pride and Prejudice. It is a fairy tale transposed into a nineteenth-century comedy of manners in the setting of one of Diana Wynne Jones’s more fantastical architectural creations.

Many intriguing concepts are introduced, such as the Polar Ambassador, whose family, known as The Web, experience what every member is seeing at once. But, like so many things here – the animated scarf, the “reading” of objects – the idea has a shimmering, attractive surface, but is not explored at depth. How can even three people see what all the others are seeing simultaneously, without going mad?

Many adversaries are arrayed against Ophelia; most of them want her dead. One of them is a ten-year-old boy known as The Knight. When Ophelia, dressed as Mime, observes him at a party, quietly playing chess, in velvet trousers, she finds the “scene eerie”. All around, there are drugs and sex and indulgence: and then this quiet, golden-haired child, at peace. She thinks the disjunction strange.

She might well do. Her reaction pertains to the book as a whole. Ophelia sees posters advertising Erotic Delights. The plot hinges on the killing of an unborn child. Yet the setting and the tone are those of a light children’s fantasy. When Ophelia travels through mirrors, she does so because the plot require her to escape from a particular situation, not because it leads her to knowledge of self or otherwise. She might as well Apparate, like the wizards in the Harry Potter series, who escape danger at their convenience. (...)