Tuesday 16 February 2010

Book Review: Gregory Maguire – Mirror, Mirror

Another recommendation from Kooky Little Sis (she is keeping me well-stocked with good books to read). McGuire seems to specialise in taking well-known fairy tales and turning them on their heads. His book Wicked was brought to the stage as the tale of the Wicked Witch of the East from the Wizard of Oz, from her perspective and I hope to get my hands on it soon.

Mirror, Mirror is McGuire’s re-working of Snow White, and what a reworking! The children’s fairy story as adult novel has been attempted numerous times, what is different this time perhaps is the style. This book was different from almost anything I had read before. The famous story is broken down into very short chapters told haphazardly from the viewpoint of a large number of characters. There is barely a chronological order, the writer veers off subject from Machiavelli, to the Roman Catholic Church, to magic to the crusades and back again with every random subject you can imagine thrown in between. Sound like a fairy tale yet?

Bianca is the daughter of a widowed Spanish nobleman settled in Renaissance Italy with an estate and crumbling mansion. The estate appears to include a friar and a cantankerous and bawdy old cook who are constantly at war. The beautiful and spirited Bianca’s world is limited to the estate and these few people until the arrival of the Borgia’s – the infamous and debauched Lucretzia and Cesare, illegitimate children of the Pope and feared through Italy. Bianca’s loving father is sent on a long and mysterious mission and Lucretzia takes charge of her upbringing until the fateful day that she is dragged into the nearby woods.

Religion, or lack of it is a recurring theme through this book with most of the characters either pretending to be religious or openly rejecting religion. The exceptions are a good friar who pretends to be senile and Cesare Borgia who exhibits a hypocritical passion for faith which contrasts with his cruelty and lasciviousness. Other themes are magic, politics, power, love and the nature of reality.

I enjoyed the book until about midway, where my attention faltered as the father languished in the dungeons of a monastery, Bianca sat in the forest and Lucrezia dissipated further. At this point, rather than take advantage of the momentum built thus far and flow forward, I found that the book slowed to a bit of a lull.

After this point, the book didn’t quite recover. Although the plotline is resolved, it is in a haphazard way which felt slightly unsatisfying.

The characters of Primavera and Fra Ludovico, the family servant and priest, bring plenty of humour to the book and were my favourite characters. Many other key characters in contrast were not quite as developed, the curious hunter being one. I did enjoy McGuires take on the origins of the poisoned apple however.

Slow in pace at times, playful in tone, the novel has flair in its use of language. This was not a great read, but good enough.

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