Caren Gussoff Sumption Reviews Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura
Lonely Castle in the Mirror, Mizuki Tsujimura (Erewhon 978-1-64566-040-8, $27.95, 400pp, hc) October 2022.
Newly translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel, Mizuki Tsujimura’s 2018 bestselling and award-winning novel, Lonely Castle in the Mirror, is a gorgeous, wrenching fantasy that lays bare the anxieties and desperation – as well as small triumphs – of adolescence. Told using a deft amalgamation of Western fairy tales – invoked by the author via the main character’s own interest in such tales – and traditional Japanese stories (leaning deeply into tropes frequently deployed by manga and anime), Lonely Castle in the Mirror follows seven teenagers, all forced out of their Tokyo-area schools by bullying or family tragedies, who must confront their fears, find common ground, and overcome their hardships to – literally – win a life-or-death game.
In her first year at Yukishina No. 5 Junior High School, narrator Kokoro Anzai is bullied so badly by popular girls that she drops out rather than face the snide comments, cold shoulders, and, ultimately, bodily threats. Her mother wants Kokoro to attend, instead, an alternative school that caters to students pushed out of traditional schools. But Kokoro no longer feels safe anywhere. She spends her days in her room, suffering stomach pains, napping, or watching television.
That is, until the day her full-length mirror begins to glow.
Her mirror has become a magical portal to a castle, straight out of a fairy tale. It’s guarded by a mysterious girl dressed in a party frock and a wolf mask who informs her that, along with six others, Kokoro has been chosen to spend the rest of the school year accessing the castle. She and the others are invited to locate a key, hidden somewhere within, which will open a ‘‘wishing room.’’ The one who finds the key and the room will have their fondest wish granted – no matter how big or how small.
There are rules, of course. The castle is open to them daily, but only until 5:00 p.m.. After five p.m., anyone remaining in the castle not only forfeits the game for all, they forfeit their lives, as wolves will eat all of them. Once the key is found and the room opened, the game is over for all, and none will ever be able to return to the castle. And the castle will exist for them only until March of the following year.
But, reader, don’t be fooled. The castle, while seeming like it would be a huge plot element, is actually overshadowed by the ebbs and flows of the relationships which develop among the gang of seven. There’s Kokoro, of course, curious, intelligent, and deeply, deeply self-conscious about how others perceive her. There’s also Aki, a beautiful, confident high school girl hiding a history of abuse; Fuka, the shy, talented musician whose talent cost her a normal childhood and her mother’s health; Rion, handsome and kind, shipped off to a boarding school in Hawaii to keep his presence at home from reminding his parents of the death of his sister; Masamune, obsessed with the video games and gadgets his family bestows on him in lieu of love; Subaru, the odd and gentle boy passed off to grandparents by parents who gave up on him; and Ureshino, chubby, generous, and in love with love.
Initially reluctant to open up to one another, the seven eventually forge fragile bonds amongst one another. Ureshino unsuccessfully pursues all three girls; Kokoro first joins Masamune and Subaru in the ‘‘game room,’’ where the boys have set up a discarded television and gaming console, before eventually trying to connect with the shy Fuka and intimidating Aki; Rion easily approaches all the others, but ducks out when conversations turn serious.
Kokoro spends a lot of time dissecting how each character addresses one another. Japanese does have rich, complex mores around when to use formal and informal phrasing, and by empathizing Korkoro’s attention to this, it adds a richness to the work. All teenagers worry about fitting in and being liked, and these specific characters feel they have lost their expected places in society and their families – so formality or familiarity holds deep meaning. To be addressed informally is to be accepted, while a formal address subtly denotes anger or disapproval. The cycles of how each of the seven say other’s names maps the ups and downs of their relationships.
The strength of the book is its dialogue, as we witness the growth of the teens as they let down their guard and open up. At the end of the novel, there’s a publisher’s note explaining that among countries surveyed by UNICEF, Japan scored poorly in its attentiveness to the mental health of youth. And that, in the end, is the driving force behind Lonely Castle in the Mirror. It uses familiar fantastical elements to take a frank look at the effects of bullying, alienation, family issues, financial strain, and grief (among other issues) have on children, giving voice to those who don’t yet know how to speak up.
It’s far from a didactic finger-wag, though. It’s a lovely read that exploits its fantasy tropes to great effect, moving smoothly to a satisfying and hopeful happily ever after. Highly recommended.
Caren Gussoff Sumption is a writer, editor, Tarot reader, and reseller living outside Seattle, WA with her husband, the artist and data scientist, Chris Sumption, and their ridiculously spoiled cat-children.
Born in New York, she attended the University of Colorado, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Clarion West (as the Carl Brandon Society’s Octavia Butler scholar) and the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop. Caren is also a Hedgebrook alum (2010, 2016). She started writing fiction and teaching professionally in 2000, with the publication of her first novel, Homecoming.
Caren is a big, fat feminist killjoy of Jewish and Romany heritages. She loves serial commas, quadruple espressos, knitting, the new golden age of television, and over-analyzing things. Her turn offs include ear infections, black mold, and raisins in oatmeal cookies.
This review and more like it in the January 2023 issue of Locus.
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