This is an extraordinary debut by Carole Johnstone full of psychological suspense, supernatural and imaginary worlds, and sibling rivalries. Cat and El are identical twins to most people who see them, but actually they’re mirror twins. This means that not only are they the same sex and blood type, they have identical, but asymmetric physical features. For example, if one is left handed the other is right handed. Yet they’ve spent twelve years definitively apart. On separate continents. Cat has been living and working in L.A. In the meantime El has been married to their childhood friend Ross and is even living in the girl’s childhood home. No 36 Westeryk Road is a large Gothic house that becomes a central character in the story. When Cat gets the news that El has gone missing while out sailing, she travels back to Edinburgh; towards her past.
The facts are that El has gone missing and there have been no sightings of her or her boat. Ross, who is now a psychologist, meets Cat and takes her back to the house. She’s shocked to find that a lot of the original furniture is still at Westeryk Road, and she’s been put in a guest room instead of their childhood room. It takes a while for her to get her bearings because in their childhood world all the rooms had names: Clown Cafe, The Kakadu Jungle, The Donkshop. The clown cafe was a candy stripe American diner. The Kakadu Jungle was richly wallpapered with a rainforest. The only room without a name was Bedroom 3. There is an old-fashioned servants bell pull with a bell for each room, but Cat doesn’t want to investigate when the bell rings from No 3. The world of imagination doesn’t end there, because tucked away under the pantry was another world called Mirrorland populated by clowns, witches and pirates. My therapist’s mind was whirling round at this point – why would someone want to live exactly as they had when they were children? Are these real or imaginary spaces? Is the imagery of mirrors significant? Which sister is a reflection of the other?
Back in the real world we meet DI Kate Rafik and DS Logan who are heading up the search for El, and seem confused by Cat’s reaction to her disappearance. Cat doesn’t trust her sister, she thinks she’s alive and possibly playing a game with them. It seems that the sisters have a symbiotic but unhealthy relationship, where El could be spiteful and play tricks on her sister. There’s also the relationship with Ross – Cat loved him first, but El couldn’t stand to be left out, taking drastic measures to be noticed. Underneath this tale I had to keep reminding myself that this was Cat’s version of events. Was she an unreliable narrator? There’s also the issue of notes being left for El just before her disappearance, but the sender hasn’t been uncovered. It doesn’t take long before Cat starts to receive similar emails, but are they from El? If so are they real warnings or a game? Or could someone else know what’s really going on at Westeryk Road?
I did find the combination of real life and flights of fancy a little difficult at times, it was as if my head was being bombarded with different information: visual, aural, imaginary, factual. I was in sensory overload a lot of time and struggled to take in the detail that might unravel this strange mystery. I also didn’t like or connect with any of the characters, so couldn’t get behind any of them. I instantly felt suspicious of Ross, because I’m used to psychologists being untrustworthy characters in fiction. This being said, the skill it has taken to create these worlds – imaginary and real – is incredible. The way Johnstone creates such a strong sense of place is by layering so much detail and I became drawn in by real life details like their grandfather having the football results on so loud everyone in the house knew who’d won. Probably because I used to check off Grandad’s pools result with him every Saturday. These pieces of the twins early life ground them in reality, just when you think everything at No 36 is imaginary. Cat describes the house as a mausoleum, a preservation of something long buried. Yet the house is alive. The description of the kitchen where there are still wonky units, but a sapphire blue Smeg fridge tells us things have changed. Time has passed here, but is that just superficial?
This book is an epic reading experience from a masterful writer, and I defy anyone to have guessed what’s really going on. I had to stop myself reading it at night because it kept my brain whirring so much I’d struggle to sleep. It wasn’t that I was scared, I was just intrigued as to what would happen next. Well, that and I don’t trust clowns much either! This was a fascinating mix of mystery, magic realism and psychological theory. You have to read it to the very end for it all to make sense, and once you do you’ll want to go back and find the clues you missed. I’ll need something restful to read next because this one well and truly worked my grey cells and my imagination to the limit.
Meet The Author
Scottish writer Carole Johnstone’s debut novel, Mirrorland, will be published in spring 2021 by Borough Press/HarperCollins in the UK and Commonwealth and by Scribner/Simon & Schuster in North America. Her award-winning short fiction has been reprinted in many annual ‘Best Of’ anthologies in the UK and the US. She has been published by Titan Books, Tor Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and PS Publishing, and has written Sherlock Holmes stories for Constable & Robinson and Running Press. Carole is represented by Hellie Ogden at Janklow & Nesbit UK and Allison Hunter at Janklow & Nesbit (US).
More information on the author can be found at carolejohnstone.com