Book Review: Lonely Castle in the Mirror

Lonely Castle in the Mirror, by Mizuki Tsujimura (translated by Philip Gabriel), was a number one bestseller in Japan where it won two highly influential literary prizes. The publisher explains that, according to a recent UNICEF report,

“While Japanese children ranked first in physical health and often lived in relatively well-off economic circumstances, instances of bullying in schools, as well as difficult relationships with family members, lead to a lack of psychological well-being.”

The success of this story may well be testament to how it resonated with so many readers.

The story is mostly told from the point of view of Kokoro Anzai, a 7th Grade student (age 12/13) living in Tokyo who stopped attending her Junior High School after just a few weeks. This followed a run of upsetting incidents involving her new classmates. It opens in May, the second month in the Japanese academic year. Kokoro wakes up each morning suffering from severe stomach aches and apprehensively tells her mother that, once again, she cannot attend school. Kokoro is an only child and both her parents go out to work. She spends her days cooped up in her bedroom, often keeping the curtains closed and sleeping or watching soaps on TV. She does not wish this to continue but, unable to find the words to explain what happened and how it made her feel, can think of no way to return to a place that triggers her debilitating anxieties.

It is on one such closed in day that the full length mirror in Kokoro’s bedroom starts to glow with a bright light. When she gets up to investigate she discovers it has become a portal to a large castle. Here she meets six other children and the enigmatic Wolf-Queen. The latter – a masked and child-like figure – explains that the group have been brought together to partake in a quest. Until the following March they may come and go as they please by day – so long as they do so alone and vacate the castle by 5pm. Their quest is to find a hidden key by solving clues, some of which she has already given them. If they succeed then the finder will have one wish granted, after which the castle will be inaccessible to all of them.

The children are unsure of the cryptic nature of what the Wolf-Queen reveals. However, the castle becomes their refuge from the upsetting reality of the home lives they are each currently leading. The children are all of an age when they should be attending Junior High School. For a variety of reasons they have not fitted in and lead lonely existences. Within the confines of the castle they are accepted, albeit guardedly. Their experiences have rendered them painfully self-conscious and lacking wider emotional literacy.

The story of these seven misfits is told over the course of the remaining academic year. It employs the language of young people and is distinctively Japanese in its sometimes abrupt and detached expression. Some of the phrasing felt a little off at times but this came to be explained. Until close to the end the reader may be confused about certain elements of continuity.

The children are struggling to navigate a world driven by the cool kids and the teachers who favour them. Kokoro has loving parents who wish to support her but cannot break through the generational language barrier. It is only in the castle that she feels she belongs, despite her occasional missteps. As March approaches, the idea of losing this refuge – and the friends she has made there – must also be managed.

At times the curious directions the tale took made me question what I was reading and whether to continue. Oddities grated and I pondered if I was enjoying the often static and opaque developments. Throughout, however, the story remained strangely compelling. The author has captured the voices of distressed and anxious young people. Their often fraught interactions remain plausible and poignant, even when they behave badly towards each other.

The denouement pulls each thread together with the Wolf-Queen’s role and her clues explained. Dark undertones have the classic fairy tale feel for a reason. Magical elements and use of metaphor may not be for everyone but provide a thought-provoking conclusion, albeit a curious one.

An unusual bildungsroman that powerfully evokes the damage caused by school bullying, familial trauma and abuse. In portraying the impact through interaction rather than lengthy exposition, reader empathy overrides inevitable judgement.

Did I enjoy the book? Not entirely while reading, as indicated above. It is, however, growing on me as I consider it further. A worthwhile read I will be pondering for some time to come.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Author Interview: Sanjida Kay

Launch of Bone By Bone by Sanjida Kay, Waterstones, The Galleries, Bristol. ©Barbara Evripidou2016; m: 07879443963; barbara@firstavenuephotography.com

Image ©Barbara Evripidou 2016

Having read her debut psychological thriller, Bone by Bone, I was delighted when Sanjida suggested we meet for coffee in Waterstones, Bath, earlier this year. I thoroughly enjoyed our chat and tentatively enquired if she would be willing to be interviewed for my blog. We agreed to make this happen around the time of the paperback publication this month.

In preparation I bought a couple of her previous works and read other interviews she has given. I hope that the questions I have asked offer some insight into the thinking behind the writing of a very intelligent and personable author, who I hope to have the opportunity to meet up with again.

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The central theme of Bone by Bone is childhood bullying. You have admitted that you were bullied as a child at many of the schools you attended. Did your parents ever try to get involved?

First, let me say how lovely it was to meet you in person, not just virtually! Thank you for having me on your blog. Youre right – I went to ten different schools and I was bullied at nine of them. I hated school! My parents didnt get involved, and at quite a young age, I stopped telling them about it. My cousins husband was a police officer, and one time, when he was over from Ireland, he had a wordwith some boys who used to throw bottles at me on the way to school. Thankfully times have changed: parents are more willing to speak up and bullying is far less tolerated. I think the key message for children today is to tell a trusted adult. Bullying, no matter how embarrassed or ashamed you might feel about it, is not acceptable. Its far more likely to stop if you get help.

You have spoken publicly of identity, how it is formed and how it changes as you grow. How has your experience of being bullied affected what you have become?

I recently gave the keynote speech at Sidcot Quaker Schools first Peace Festival, which focused on the nature of identity. Many young people dont know who they are yet (probably something we all struggle with a bit!). I feel that identity is partly formed by who you love and who loves you – your family and friends – as well as your culture and environment. But it does change and you can shape your own identity yourself. I love this quote by Dr Seuss, the well-known author of books like, The Cat in the Hat:

“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

I dont believe that bullying makes you a stronger individual in the end. It is psychologically damaging. Being bullied changed me for the worse and for years affected my relationships, particularly with men. I always chose the wrong guy! But then I had a couple of years of therapy, and now Im married to a kind, gentle, strong person.

For Bone by Bone you changed your author name. What prompted this?

My previous books are more literary and the last two are also historical. My publishers asked me to change my name to separate those novels and my non-fiction books from my thrillers (the next one, The Stolen Child, is due out in spring 2017). They wanted me to keep my first name, though and since there arent many British novelists called Sanjida, its relatively easy to work out who I really am!

You are a science writer who presents and directed science and wildlife documentaries for the BBC. Your previous books included a great deal of scientific content. Was it an active choice to tone down the science when writing Bone by Bone?

Im fascinated by science, particularly the natural world. My first degree is in zoology and my second was a PhD on chimpanzees. The main character in three of my previous novels is a scientist. But I chose not to have a science theme running through my thrillers, mainly to make them more accessible. Thats not to say that I wont return to science at some point or that science cant be exciting or mainstream. Even in Bone by Bone bits are inspired by my background and love of nature – Lauras mum, for instance, is an anthropologist based in Namibia, and that came out of field work I carried out on baboons!

You have set the book close to where you live, painting the nature reserve in particular as oozing menace. Do you feel safe when, for instance, out running in your neighbourhood?

Thats good, thats what I was aiming for! The urban nature reserve near where I live feels like a lovely oasis to me but I do feel unsafe running in the city, particularly when its dark. What frightens me are out of control dogs and dangerous humans.

In Bone by Bone, Autumn and her mother have recently moved cities and are still trying to settle. You were moved around a great deal as a child. Do you look back on this as a positive experience or would you have preferred more stability?

Ive reacted against being moved around so much as a child by desperately searching for somewhere to put down roots! Ive lived in or near Bristol almost my entire adult life. But I have itchy feet. Im always planning to move house (maybe I could go to LA? Or Cornwall?) or thinking of my next holiday!

And finally, you are donating a percentage of your profits from Bone by Bone to the charity Kidscape, which works to promote the anti-bullying message and shine a spotlight on child protection issues. What made you choose that particular anti-bullying charity to support?

Some of the other charities around support adults who are bullied too, and whilst thats worthy, I wanted a percentage of any money Bone by Bone makes, to go directly towards helping children. I approached Kidscape because I like their ethos: the charity seems to me very much about empowering young people and giving them concrete tools and the support they need.

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My thanks to Sanjida for answering these questions. I eagerly await the chance to read ‘The Stolen Child’ in 2017.

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‘Bone by Bone’ is published by Corvus and is now available in paperback. You may read my review here.

Book Review: Bone by Bone

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Bone by Bone, by Sanjida Kay, is a skillfully written exploration of the insidious damage caused by bullying. It is a tense and somewhat bleak tale with its portrayal of the helplessness and isolation of the protagonist, and the difficulty of protecting a child within the constraints of the law.

Laura, a recently divorced single mother, has moved to Bristol with her nine year old daughter, Autumn. Both are missing their friends from London. Laura chose their house based on its proximity to a well regarded school and its size as she wishes to establish her own business. Unbeknown to her, Autumn finds the creaks of the old place frightening and dislikes having a bedroom so far away from her mother’s.

At school Autumn is just starting to make a few friends when an older boy takes notice of her, mocking her name and insulting her looks. When her drawer is filled with slugs she tells her teacher that he is to blame, an accusation that is dismissed as implausible. When Laura finds out she promises her daughter that it will be sorted, a promise that cannot be kept.

As any parent will know, schools have many discontented parents to deal with and cannot police the behaviour of every child all of the time. Laura sees how unhappy her daughter has become and is determined to help. Her attempts to do so escalate the problem. The boy is spoken to and he takes out his anger at this on Autumn. When Laura comes across a group of his friends surrounding her daughter she loses her temper.

The law rightly protects children but knowledge of this gives the savvy power. With the explosion of mass internet usage, a medium which many do not yet comprehend, there is also scope for cyber bullying. Laura’s priority is to protect her child but Autumn understands that each time her mother acts the situation worsens. She believes the cruel taunts and blames herself.

The story is told from both Laura’s and Autumn’s points of view. It is frustrating to read as it is so plausible. The author has done a stirling job in dragging the reader inside the minds of all involved. The alpha mummies close ranks, the gossips are fed, the children follow the herd. Malevolence oozes from each page.

The denouement is tense and terrifying. Laura feels driven to consider ever more extreme measures. Her desperation is palpable.

A tightly written thriller that gets to the heart of issues too many must face. An accomplished debut and a haunting read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Corvus.