First, a shoutout to all translators around the world. Thanks to them, those who primarily read in English get to enjoy all sorts of stories from across cultures and countries. Philip Gabriel is an American translator mostly known for his translations of Haruki Murakami’s books (‘Kafka on the Shore’, ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’, ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’, among others) and of works by Nobel Prize-winner Kenzaburō Ōe (‘Somersault’). He also translated one of my absolute favorite books, ‘The Traveling Cat Chronicles’ by Hiro Arikawa—a story about a man and his adopted cat traveling across Japan, as narrated by the cat.
I was browsing through a local bookstore when I came across ‘Lonely Castle in the Mirror’ by Mizuki Tsujimura. Apparently, she’s a well-known author of bestselling mystery novels in Japan. But I was reading something else at that moment and had a few more books on my TBR pile at home. I had no intention of buying more books (as readers often tell themselves when they mindlessly enter a bookstore). I was just killing time while my takeaway was getting ready at the restaurant next to it. But I was fascinated by the blurb. And then I found out that Gabriel had translated it.
The protagonist Kokoro hasn’t been to school in a while. Her mother is trying to convince her to join a new one but Kokoro just can’t bring herself to step out of the house. Then one day, the mirror in her room starts glowing. Through the mirror, she is transported into a castle where she meets six other children who, for reasons of their own, aren’t going to school either. There they meet the Wolf Queen—a strange girl in a wolf mask—who sets them on a mission: to find the wishing room and the key that unlocks it. The one who does so will be granted a wish, she tells them.
It’s an interesting story. It also deals with important issues like bullying and mental health. The writing isn’t bad. The characters are well-fleshed out. But something about the execution of the plot doesn’t feel right. It starts off really slow, with the children getting to know one another and traveling back and forth between their homes and the castle. There’s a laid back approach to storytelling up until more than halfway through the book. And then, suddenly, the writer decides to wrap up the story and rushes through it. There isn’t a natural progression to events. That way, the ending feels forced.
Two and a half stars
Lonely Castle in the Mirror
Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK
Pages: 354, Paperback