Mirror mirror on the wall…

Everybody turns at the sound of breaking glass. There’s something dramatic about it, irreparable, frightening even. Broken glass is a symbol for the point of no return, a change so drastic it’s impossible to fix; that was why everybody turned at the sound of the fallen picture frame.

“Thank God it’s not a mirror,” somebody exclaimed trying to see the up side, because what’s worse than broken glass? Broken glass with a silver backing…

Superstition is a funny thing. It’s the sum of a random act with negative societal associations multiplied by the person’s fears and added to a number thought to have mystical properties. Superstition is so powerful it would make the person responsible for the break watch their every step and attribute all negative experiences between now and the next seven years to the broken glass, the one with the silver sprayed on the back of it.

People are born not knowing what they look like, which I find extremely poetic. You can form an impression from people’s descriptions, but getting to look into our own eyes is impossible without the help of a reflecting device. When I was four I used to love looking at the little girl inside my closet door so much my parents actually thought I had a narcissistic disorder. No one ever thought to ask if I understood it wasn’t somebody else.

Beyond children, to the unknowing people of the past it is understandable how an object that reflected a person’s image could be captivating. Without knowledge of light waves it’s not difficult to attach magical properties to such a thing. It’s easy for us to forget how the manufacture of plate glass was a relatively late discovery and that in order to turn that glass into a perfect reflecting surface, a currently simple, yet formerly complex chemical process is required. Imagine the excitement and the novelty of seeing your image in a plate of silvered glass as well as the terror experienced when the “magic” that held your face within it shattered to a million pieces.

Mirrors have held mystical attributes ever since antiquity and in fact, the ancient Romans believed that the mirror reflected a part of your soul. A broken mirror, presumably obsidian, signified a break in the person’s wellbeing. Some say seven years was the time it took for the soul to renew itself after the break. To some even now, a mirror’s fall from the wall means a death is imminent and in fairytales they know true beauty. In Jewish tradition mirrors are covered when someone dies in order to avoid their soul getting trapped in them or so that demons are not attracted through them by the void left by the death. And not forgetting my personal favourite of course: Vampires cannot be reflected in mirrors for they have no soul.

In 15th-16th century Venice where the science of mirror making was the most advanced in Europe at the time, mirrors were astronomically expensive. Any servants discovered to have broken a mirror were forced into indentured servitude for seven years in order to pay back the cost of the object. Add that to the centuries of awe caused by the mystical qualities of the reflected image and a powerful superstition takes shape.

What’s the most enduring fact of all? Fear of ill luck can race through the generations, fuelled only by the power of the spoken word, without a shred of proof other than what we interpret as misfortune. We can find bad luck in anything if we search hard enough or if we are looking to confirm what we think we know. As it turns out, the impact of words is more powerful than a thousand broken mirrors…

The Night Circus-Review

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two children are bound by magic in a game where they are destined to face each other in a distant future. Neither knows who their opponent is at first, nor what the game is all about. This only becomes clear to them as the years progress and their magical skills mature. Other than knowing who the two opponents are, we as the audience, are also unaware of the nature of the game.

I read this book purely out of sheer blurb curiosity. The description was so deliciously vague and the reviews so enthusiastic it was begging to be read. From what I could surmise it was about a circus with supernatural elements which I liked the idea of.

What I was not aware of, and about which I am pleased in hindsight, is the fact that it was part love story. I say I’m pleased because had I known there was a love story at the heart of this I would most likely not have read it. Having read it however, I am happy to say that it’s one of the sweetest love stories I’ve ever read-mind you, I don’t really read love stories so don’t have a lot of experience to speak of-paradox?

“The Night Circus” is a truly unusual book; not because it tells the story of the aforementioned magical circus but because it is mostly narrated in the present tense, though it keeps jumping backwards and forwards a few years depending on the chapter, something I only realised a few chapters in. It’s not imperative that you keep a close eye on the timeline but it helps to be aware of it. It is linear for the most part and there isn’t much of a back story as much as a present story which continues uninterrupted for about thirty years.

“The Night Circus” is also somewhat of a formal book. Much like the Victorian aesthetic it adopts, the language keeps the reader a little at arm’s length with a sense of linguistic formality that is subtle enough to position you in the mind set of the period but also present enough to keep you squarely in the position of the audience; both the book’s conscious audience but also a member of the circus’ audience which watches enthralled as the magic takes place. This is where this book’s skill hides in my opinion. Each word in there feels carefully selected to convey the complex imagery and emotion required. This careful wording manages to create a beautifully decorated, rich and flamboyant world. I could literally sense the clutter in the rooms, the texture of the fabrics, the effect of the magic and the stakes involved. Rarely has a book been so successful at conveying a three dimensional experience with the ability of alerting all my senses.

The only place I feel it lacked a bit was in the cohesion. At times it felt like less important characters got more screen time than they deserved considering their overall contribution to the work. For example, the love story only really takes off a little over half way, and considering how pivotal it was to the conclusion of the book I was left feeling like it needed to be a little more centre stage.

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Another little teaser, since I’ve yet to finalize my cover

The twins had been brought to the Countess during a bad harvest year when they were just ten years old. They were poorly dressed but neat and clean and their blonde hair was done in two long and thin braids on either side of their faces, which reached all the way to their tummies and tied off with a piece of red raffia. They stood in front of her tightly holding hands looking solemnly at the ground. A tear on the cheek of one of them fell to the ground. They were the mirror image of each other and though at first glance they looked as identical as two peas in a pod, on closer examination the face of one was slightly rounder than the other and her eyes were a fraction closer together. The miserable image of their emaciated father stood behind them pathetically blabbering but she had mostly blocked him out; these peasants were all the same, always suffering… She remembered him saying something about them being too poor to support eleven children and how eternally grateful they would be if she could take them into her employ. They didn’t even need to get paid, he said, just fed and sheltered in exchange for their hard work. Apparently they were very hard working and she could always use a new pair of hands or two at the castle the way they seemed to drop off lately. Flies were hardier than some of the people that worked for her.

Reaching into the folds of her ample skirts she withdrew a small pouch with gold in. Her large rings obstructed her fingers as she tried to get a coin out. Such vulgarity the exchange of money but an inevitable necessity. She threw it at the father, who greedily grabbed it despite his earlier protestations, and agreed to take the girls who had both started to cry now, but quite modestly at least. Clutching the coin tightly in his hands he knelt down, hugged them and told them to be good and do as the Countess said. Quite a touching little scene she thought to herself but it was time he went on his way and they got to work.  

“Darvulia! Darvulia where are you?”

The portly witch rushed into the chamber drying her hands on her apron.

“Darvulia we have new help, won’t you please show them to their quarters” she said as the corner of her mouth formed a little wry smile.

More like teasers than excerpts

…The raven glistened as it stood on the branch.  Such fine creatures these birds are. Children of the night and so indistinguishable from it that they almost look alien in the day time. Sleek and spectacular beasts that devour anything that peaks their appetite. The silver reflections of the light were the only interruptions to the pure black of its plumage. The feathers were all so expertly arranged, to look at it you wouldn’t know it was dead. The taxidermist had done such a fine job she was loathe to touch it let alone take a feather from its neck, but the spell called for it and where else would she get a feather from a hundred year old raven at this time? This one had belonged to her mother and her mother before her. It was the guardian to the long line of spell casters in her family and she felt like she would be dishonoring her forebears if she mistreated it but her mistress would never take no for an answer and the reward was more than worth it. With the gift of immortality she could catch a thousand magnificent ravens and mount them on branches on her desk and watch them age as she never would. With a pair of tweezers she carefully plucked a tiny feather from the bird’s chest making sure to smooth over the rest with her tired fingers so that they covered over the little hole that had been left behind. With a deep sigh she dropped it into the potion…