Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura is a magical but ultimately profound tale that weaves Japanese culture and tradition, fantasy and Western fairytales with a meditation on the complexities and pressures of adolescence.
Kokoro has been staying home from school, following a traumatic incident, as she weighs up the option of transferring to a new school for kids like her who are having trouble fitting in. When the mirror in her room starts glowing, she reaches out and finds herself pulled across a threshold into a magical castle, where she and a group of other teenagers are welcomed by the Wolf Queen – an enigmatic girl in a wolf’s mask. Free to return each day within certain hours, they are tasked with locating a hidden key to a hidden wishing room, where their wish will be granted. The catch: only the first to reach the room will have their wish granted, so the race is on. Or is it? This is an interesting take on the ‘children pitched against each other in the quest for a prize’ storyline.
Kokoro is an endearing protagonist; we see her trepidation, from hard-learned experience, trying not to get on the wrong side of the group, over-analysing what she says and what they say, but also her pride when she finds little ways to fit in and get along with the group. The kids are all so different, and Tsujimura fleshes the characters out really well. The things that made these kids outsiders in the real world become their common ground in the castle, and a focus of the novel is the heart-warming progression and fluctuation of the dynamics within the castle as they get to know each other, and each other’s histories, more; as well as showing how Kokoro’s experiences in the castle influence her life back in the real world.
Behind the glittering veil of magic glowing mirrors and mysterious castles lies a sombre reflection on emotional well-being, the value of friendship, the precarious dynamics of school life, the cyclical nature of not fitting in, the anxieties of adolescence, loneliness, the devastating effects of bullying, and the coping mechanisms employed by children in the face of adversity. The publisher’s note at the end of the novel, outlining statistics on mental well-being in children in Japan, illuminates the fact that this is a poignant work of fiction emerging from a topical issue unfortunately affecting the country, like indeed so many countries around the world, and serves to emphasise the power of literature to open up debate on difficult and sensitive issues.
While I have enjoyed plenty of books with child and teenage narrators/protagonists, this book dipped a bit for me in the middle during the prolonged teenage exchanges between the group in the castle. However, overall I really enjoyed this. As the novel moved into its final phase, I felt things really picked up again, and I absolutely loved the ending; I found the author wrapped the story up in a really beautiful and compelling way.
The novel is also being turned into an anime film, due for release later this year, and I will definitely be looking to catch that.
Book 8 reviewed as part of the #20BooksOfSummer22 reading challenge hosted by Cathy at 746books.com.
Originally published in Japanese in 2017, the English version, translated by Philip Gabriel, was published in 2021 by Doubleday.
Mizuki Tsujimura lives in Tokyo and is a well-known author of bestselling mystery novels in Japan. Her groundbreaking novel Lonely Castle in the Mirror combines elements of Japanese fantasy with highly relevant themes of emotional well-being and friendship. It won the coveted Japan Booksellers’ Award, voted by booksellers as the book they most like to sell, and became an instant no.1 bestseller in Japan, selling over half a million copies. Tsujimura has also won the Naoki prize for her work. Rights have sold across the world.
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