Book Review: The Mirrored World

The Mirrored World by Debra DeanThe Mirrored World
by Debra Dean
Harper, 2012
256 Pages (Paperback)

Available for pre-order (Releases August 28, 2012)

What causes a wealthy woman to give up all her possessions and become as one of the destitutes she serves? What turns a regular person into a hallowed saint? Is it devotion? Destiny? Madness?

Debra Dean explores these questions in her new novel, The Mirrored World, based on the life of Russia’s Saint Xenia. The narrator, Dasha, is Xenia’s cousin but grows up with her in the same house like a sister. As lower nobles of Empress Elizabeth’s court, they have a relatively sheltered childhood, cared for by devoted nurses and schooled in manners to win them rich husbands. But unlike many of her peers, Xenia marries for love—a passionate court musician whose voice vaults Xenia into meditative states—and takes Dasha, who is quickly becoming an old maid, into her married home.

Xenia has always been impulsive and sensitive, given to visions. But a few years into her marriage one tragedy follows another, and Xenia withdraws into her herself. When she finally emerges, her otherworldliness seems to have become central. She spends her days in prayer, attends mass daily, and no longer seems aware of the needs of her household. Dasha attempts to protect her from herself, hiding valuables to stop Xenia from giving away every last item to the beggars she now welcomes to her table. Even Xenia’s estranged family gets involved, invoking Russian law to have her declared mad. But Xenia cannot be deterred, and in a final dramatic gesture, signs over the house to Dasha and disappears—seemingly for good. It is years before Dasha discovers just how far Xenia’s passion has ultimately taken her.

Dean raises questions about social obligations in the face of extreme grief, about the lines between religious conviction and madness, about how far one can act in the interests of outsiders while preserving commitments to those in our care—but leaves the answers to the reader. Her choice to tell the story through Dasha’s eyes preserves the unknowable motives of the historical Xenia while still providing a close reflection of her gender and class. It’s a sympathetic portrayal that handles the miracles and other elements of the hagiography with care.

Xenia’s life is mirrored in Dasha’s just as the spired palace is mirrored in the thick ice of the river. A strong sense of place anchors the story in cold, imperial Russia, where the illusion of happiness is donned like the wig necessary to every court amusement. Alongside the personal stories, Dean paints a glittering image of Petersburg and the relatively comfortable but politically harsh life of the court.

Like her first novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad, The Mirrored World is carefully researched and imaginatively realized, weaving past and present together in the quiet but sometimes surprising recollections of the aging narrator. With the publication of her second novel, Dean is building a reputation as a strong novelist concerned with the pathos of everyday life as ground against the political movements of history.

The Mirrored World releases August 28. An advance review copy was provided without obligation by the publisher.

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