A number of reviewers of this parish have connections to the children’s book world but we don’t generally review books for young readers here. Today I’m reviewing a novel about children.
Lonely Castle in the Mirror was originally published in Japan in 2017 where it won prizes and became a bestseller. Its prize-worthiness isn’t in question as you read but perhaps it’s only when you reach the poignant Publisher’s Note, written for the English-language translation, at the very end that its popularity is explained.
The story is told mostly from the perspective of Year 8 student Kokoro, whom we learn early is bullied so relentlessly at school that she stops going, even finding herself unable to begin again at the new school her sympathetic parents and former teacher have found her. She is confined to spending the hours of 9 to 5 each weekday alone trapped in her bedroom.
That is until a strange effect in her bedroom mirror transports her to another dimension, into a many-roomed castle where she meets six other children – of course there are seven children altogether; all the tropes of traditional tales were here – who have also found formal education untenable. They are set a year-long challenge by the sinister girl in a wolf mask who calls herself the Wolf Queen.
‘You are all lost Little Red Riding Hoods,’ the Wolf Queen said. ‘From now until next March, you will need to search for the key that will unlock the Wishing Room. The person who finds it will have the right to enter and their wish will be granted.’
But this privilege comes at the expense of others’ ambition and safety. And in other ways, too, the world of the castle is no more kind or democratic than life in the classroom. There are rules to obey – and rules that unexpectedly change – and soon routines form. The children can enter and leave the castle as long as they do so within the hours of 9 to 5. But they can’t abandon the tensions and rivalries of adolescence. You might think they’ve forfeited one classroom for another.
Allusions to children’s literature abound – from Hans Christian Andersen to anime, via Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia – which give the story a kind of timelessness, but this is not a dreamy, reflective novel. Each chapter spans a month in the characters’ year-long challenge and I felt propelled through the story by a kind of bruising inertia. However, its intricate plotting and attention to detail give the novel a necessary tenderness too. The depiction of Japanese society, its culture and philosophies add huge interest for those of us reading the attentive translation.
A new novel that reminded me of I’m the King of the Castle by Susan Hill and Penelope Farmer’s A Castle of Bone, Lonely Castle in the Sky will no doubt conjure other novels in readers’ mind but will be memorable for its own unsettling power.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stewart
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
The Biscuit Factory Girls by Elsie Mason
An Honest Man by Ben Fergusson
Clock Dance by Anne Tyler
Carnivore by Jonathan Lyon
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett