I’m not living. I’m waiting.
For something, anything, to happen.
THE SUBLIME GOTHIC
What was the inspiration behind Mirrorland? I get asked that a lot.
The simplest answer is that I wrote about what I love to read about. And what I love to read are gothic thrillers with mysteries at their heart. Contemporary or classic, it doesn’t matter; Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects or Jane Harper’s Outback whodunnits feel every bit as gothic to me as Rebecca or Jane Eyre.
To me, a gothic story is something you feel. It’s an atmosphere—dark, beautiful, full of longing and threat—where setting is all important, but the characters living in it even more so. Because passion—love, hate, lust, envy, betrayal, revenge, sacrifice—is what drives that mystery and the story.
There should always be twists in gothic fiction, but never at the expense of that story. Mirrorland has many twists, some large, some small, some you might see coming, some I hope you don’t! Good twists should feel completely seamless, and in hindsight, make perfect sense. They should also always feel like an intrinsic part of the story—the mystery—itself. Because, of course, they are.
Although countless authors have, at one time or another, been labelled gothic writers— from the Brontës and Charles Dickens, to Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier, to Stephen King and Margaret Atwood—one of my first favourite gothic stories was Jane Eyre. It has the Byronic hero (brooding, rich, swoon-worthy, and 99% of the time, awful: “Am I hideous, Jane?”, he asks. “Very, sir; you always were, you know”); the independent and feisty protagonist, Jane, who is neither beautiful nor a swooner; the vast, isolated, and gloomy Thornfield Hall that is plagued by mysterious noises and fires, and may or may not be haunted.
I love Beloved; And Then There Were None; Bleak House; The Turn of the Screw; The Haunting of Hill House; and Rebecca. But I also love Gone Girl; Sharp Objects; The Wych Elm; The Lost Man; My Sister, The Serial Killer; The Roanoke Girls; The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, and many, many others. To me they are all gothic stories because they’re mysterious and full of big atmosphere. They’re fast-paced and exciting and full of surprises and twists, while still being just as full of emotion. Fear. Comfort. Love. Hate. Passion. Romance. Betrayal. Revenge. Redemption. They are all just wonderful stories that I’ve never been able to forget.
There are many themes in Mirrorland. On the surface, it’s about two things: a missing sister and a terrible secret at the heart of an unusual childhood. But, like most stories, it’s really about much more.
It’s easy to be tricked. Especially if you want to believe it.
What if your whole life was a lie?
Years ago, while I was still thinking and plotting and researching, I mentioned that door in the back of the cupboard in the Sewing Room to my sister. That locked door to Somewhere. She looked at me like I’d suddenly grown a second head, and said she had no idea what I was talking about. Not so strange, I thought at the time, because Lorna is three and half years younger than me. Not a big difference as adults, but huge when you’re kids. And she was pretty young when our grandparents died and we said goodbye to the house.
A year or so after that, once I’d started actually writing the book, I mentioned it again—casually, probably unintentionally—to Mum. And she gave me much the same look as Lorna had, before telling me that there had never ever been a full-sized door—locked or otherwise—in the back of that cupboard in the Sewing Room. Mum grew up in that house from the age of about two; I’m willing to bet that she racked up a lot more games of sardines than I ever did. What she was saying had to be true. And I wasn’t just shocked, I was blindsided. It was unimaginable to me that I had imagined it. That the door hadn’t—didn’t—exist. Even now, if I close my eyes, I can see it. I can smell the cupboard: musty and dry, old wood and moth balls. I can feel the cold, the heat of my breath, the tickling touch of those hanging dresses and suits against my face. And I can see that door. Its four panels, its peeling white paint, its cream round handle. I can remember trying that handle. I can remember the rattle it made when it wouldn’t open. All of that had been completely real.
And then I was even more shocked—more blindsided—that I had ever believed it was completely real. That, on some level, I still believed it.
It’s now widely accepted by neuroscientists that most of our memories are not true representations of what actually happened. That our brains are constantly lying to us. When we call up a specific memory, we change it, and that changed memory becomes what we recall the next time. Like editing a story in Word, we subconsciously overwrite: insert and delete. Depending on our mood, or why we’ve chosen to recall this specific memory, we attach new emotions, perceptions, and interpretations. What was once the truth is now a lie.
MEMORY IS SUBJECTIVE
And this happens every time we do it. So the significant memories, the big ones we return to again and again—and for whatever reason, that door in the back of the Sewing Room cupboard has always, for me, been one of them—are the memories that we can trust the least. The ones that have become the biggest lie. And yet, ironically, they are the ones that we believe—trust—the most.
Memory, too, is subjective. Even when the event is first happening, we are attaching emotions, perceptions, and interpretations to it. It’s why no two people will ever remember the same event in the same way. My first love was a boy who I met when I was eighteen. He was gorgeous and popular, and our relationship was fast and fun and, to my mind, very serious. Serious enough that I never cared about our differences, never even considered them. He was religious and I was not; his family was rich and mine was not; he was confident, always certain and I was not.
I can remember the day that he dumped me. In Technicolor. It was a Friday. I had just showered and my hair was still wet when he knocked on the door. We had coffee, and I talked about uni; he talked about his new job. And then he said that he thought we should split up. That we didn’t really work as a couple because we were too different. I didn’t say much; I was completely aghast. He got up from the kitchen table and walked through the utility room to the back door. I remember that he was smiling when he hugged me, and I was smiling too, or trying to. And all the while, he was concluding our relationship with a cheerful verbal montage of all the great times we’d had. The one image I most remember—like a Polaroid snapshot—is him giving me a big grin, one hand on the already opened door as he said, “And you got me listening to really great music.” (I had, that much is true; before he met me his favourite band had been Mega City Four.)
After he’d left with fervent promises to stay in touch that I was at least self-aware enough not to believe, I remember sliding to the floor on legs too wobbly to hold me up any longer. I remember crying so hard that afterwards I couldn’t speak for two days. I remember running out of the house with my still wet hair (and I was not then and not now a runner), and only stopping when I reached the graveyard around the corner, because I knew it was the best place to fully indulge my sorrow; to sob and sob on a bench, in the rain and the cold, for two whole hours, and have no one bother me. I was grief-stricken for weeks, depressed for months. Occasionally I even stalked him and his new girlfriend, until I recognised how much good that was doing me.
That is my memory. I can guarantee that it is not his. I was not his first love. I was a girl he once dated. If he remembers that day at all, it is probably only fondly, vaguely. He didn’t break my heart because I smiled and nodded and never told him that it was broken. Even in that moment—as that first true memory formed—we were in the same room having the same conversation, but we were in parallel universes; our experiences were entirely different. He is and was not the person that I remember, and I am and was not the person he remembers. It’s the duplicity rather than the unreliability of memory that fascinates me. The kind lies that it makes you believe, and the brutal truths that it helps you forget. And just how easy it is, either to unwittingly create a false memory in the first place, or to slowly—and just as unwittingly—turn what was true into a lie. One that you don’t just accept, but believe without question. Maybe even one so important that it informs who you are, the person that you become.
Children have fiendish imaginations and the boundary between what is real and what is fantasy for them is far more fluid. Children easily believe in worlds that live over rainbows, down rabbit holes, and inside wardrobes. Their worlds are full of magic and make-believe. And sometimes—often—that becomes the best defence mechanism that they have. If writing fiction is always asking the question What if?, then the realisation that that door inside the Sewing Room cupboard had never existed except in my mind and false memory prompted the biggest what if? behind Mirrorland. What if two identical twins created a world so detailed, so perfect for them that it was as real as any other? What if there were reasons—dark reasons—for that place to exist at all? What if something then happened: a trauma so great, so unfathomable, that that world and its fantasy were all that saved them? And what if one of those sisters never stopped believing in the fantasy? What if her entire life was a lie based on false memories recalled and revised again and again? And what if, one day, she had to come back—what if she was finally forced to confront the complete lie that was her life?
But this house and our mother and her stories
turned our imagination into a melting pot, a forge. A cauldron.
And, I’m beginning to realise, I can trust nothing that came out of it.
LOVE AND HATE
There’s an arsehole on every boat, and if there’s no, it’s prob’ly you.
Mirrorland is about love. The love we have for family, for friends, for lovers. It’s about unconditional and selfless love; obsessive and passionate love; abusive and destructive love. Most of all, it’s about the wonderful and terrible things that we do in the name of love.
Although Mirrorland is a story principally about family and sisterhood, the drive behind the present narrative is a love triangle. Love triangles are written about so often in fiction—from Romeo and Juliet to Rebecca even Twilight—because passion, sex, and drama are at the heart of the most popular stories, and a love triangle provides all three in spades. When we read, we want escapism, we want to become invested in something that feels real but isn’t. We want to root for someone; we want them to come out on top. In the same way that we connect to a triumphant underdog story, love triangles allow us to become safely invested, to feel outraged on someone else’s behalf, to be judge and jury, to takes sides. We need true love to win, but we also need someone to lose. Perhaps not as predictably as we expect, but it has to be satisfying. Our outrage should be vindicated, our sympathy rewarded. And woe betide the writer who gets that wrong!
What the fuck am I doing? But I know. I know how I feel about him. I’ve always known.
And I know that even if El was still here, I would feel the same: a hostage to memories—truths—that I’ve spent years trying to ignore.
I’m appalled by how easily they’ve come back, as if they’ve only been treading water when I’d imagined them long drowned
REVENGE AND REDEMPTION
Mirrorland is also about revenge. About righting terrible wrongs. From The Iliad to Carrie to the Princess Bride, everyone also loves a good revenge plot. In fact, they often go hand-in-hand with love triangles. If anything, a story of revenge is more powerful, more satisfying because while it has the same ingredients: outrage, drama, injustice, a winner and a loser, its execution is sharper, more keenly planned and anticipated—you know that the antagonist’s downfall will be spectacular and that the protagonist will prevail, even if she has to turn to the dark side to do it.
One of the most famous—and best—revenge stories ever written is the Count of Monte Cristo. Alexandre Dumas was one of my favourite writers growing up. His novels were exciting and thrilling and epic. They bubbled over with passion and conflict. Many of them, including the Count of Monte Cristo, had plots initially woven around a love triangle—the fallout of which then became the basis for the following revenge plot. In the Count of Monte Cristo, the antagonists’ downfalls are truly spectacular, Edmond Dantès gets his revenge and, eventually, his happy ending. It’s one of the most truly satisfying books you’ll ever read.
Of course, revenge can take many forms. Not every protagonist has to be John Wick. Revenge can simply be forgiveness. Or surviving ultimately unscathed and unchanged, and then building the kind of life that your enemies could only dream of. You could argue then that Edmond had already got his revenge the minute he became the Count of Monte Cristo. In Great Expectations, revenge is an entirely pointless pursuit that hurts the innocent more than the guilty. And A Tale of Two Cities is full of terrible acts of revenge: an endless and vicious cycle of an-eye-for-an-eye that ends only after Sydney Carton selflessly sacrifices his own life instead.
Redemption, therefore, could be seen as the best, most heroic revenge of all. In Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne has a thousand reasons to seek revenge: for his unjust imprisonment for murder; for the repeated assaults and rapes and humiliations he suffers at the hands of his fellow inmates; for the punishments of the guards; for the coercion of the corrupt governor; for the loss of nearly thirty years of his life. But, for him, revenge is freedom. And it is friendship. And love.
Once upon a time, before she decided that she hated me,
El loved me. And I loved her.
Nothing and no one existed but us.
Read now on any device