Publisher Spotlight Review: A House Without Mirrors by Mårten Sandén (Author), Moa Schulman (Illustrator), Karin Altenberg (Translator)

mirrors

Hardcover, 176 pages
Published July 4th 2013 by Pushkin Children’s Books
Source: Publisher

The days after everyone had left felt unreal. The empty rooms in Henrietta’s house were in constant shadow, in spite of the late summer sun outside the windows. A strange silence rolled through the halls and corridors, and even the smells were gone.

Not until the the third evening did I understand. I was sitting alone in Wilma’s empty room, where the bedding was still folded neatly on top of the mattress, when I realized that it was not the silence that was alien, but everything else that had been and gone: the sounds and voices that had occupied the house while the cousins were there had been the exception. The silence was familiar, like an old cardigan.

The silence was me.

A House Without Mirrors is perhaps one of the most beautiful books I have read this year. It explores human nature through the eyes of a small child. It uses paranormal normal happenings as a vehicle to shine focus on the wounds that usually cripple a person from the inside out. Thomasine’s great-aunt Hettie is dying and she and her are staying in her great-aunt’s mansion to take care of her during her last few days. Thomasine’s uncle and aunt and their children have also joined them not to help their brother (Thomasine’s father) look after great-aunt Hettie but because they are convinced that their presence will ensure that they will get some portion of whatever estate Hettie has left once Hettie passes away.

The book is brutally sad. Thomasine’s younger brother drowned in a pond and her family has fallen apart. Her father movies through life like a zombie, often crying silently while sitting by  Hettie’s bedside. Her mother is unable to cope and is not present for the duration of the story. Her uncle’s wife left him for another man, turning him bitter and mean. His son is the devil incarnate and his little daughter who is only four is often ignored and ridiculed for her silence. Thomasine’s aunt is one of those glittery blade-sharp women who are out for number one without stopping to just live. Her daughter is an adolescent and has trouble with the way she looks compared to the way she and her mother want her to look.

When Signe, Thomasine’s youngest cousin, finds a wardrobe full of mirrors that transports them into a house that looks like a newer version of Hettie’s house and they meet Henrietta, the little girl who lives in this newer house, things begin to change.

The translation is well done and manages to bring across the poignancy of the novel. I love the focus on family dynamics. I love that there is an extended family present as this aspect of family life is often missing from books set in North America. I like the heaviness, the weight of the grief in the story. It is not glossed over at all. What I most love though is that adults are treated as they are fallible just like children are if not more. There is a tendency in books produced by North American writers to portray parents as misunderstood and easy to forgive when the truth is anything but. I love that Thomasine’s troubles are attributed rightly to the inability of her parents to deal with their grief.

The book presents a wonderful opportunity to learn about different cultures and different ways of thinking and being. But at the same time, it also unites people through the emotions that are common to all. Thomasine’s journey and observation through her grief and beyond it is a beautiful one to read. While the book is deceptively simple on the first read through, a closer and more thorough reading reveals something new every time. Strongly recommended.

Mårten Sandén, author of A House Without Mirrors, was born in Stockholm in 1962 and spent most of his childhood in the university town of Lund, in southern Sweden. He has been writing, in one way or another, more or less full-time since his early twenties. Starting out as a professional songwriter for music publishers in Europe and the US, Sandén began writing children’s books in the mid-1990s. The Petrini Detectives, a series of mysteries for Middle Readers, was launched in 1999. Since then, he has written around thirty more children’s books, ranging from picture books to novels for young adults. His work has been translated into Danish, German, Russian and English. Mårten Sandén is a member of The Swedish Academy of Children’s Book Writers and The Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy. He lives in Stockholm with his wife and daughter.