What if one day you walked through your bedroom mirror and find yourself in a castle that grants wishes? That’s what happens to Kokoro in this incredible story. Thanks to Erewhon Books for the gifted copy.
Bullied to the point of dropping out of school, Kokoro’s days blur together as she hides in her bedroom, unable to face her family or friends. As she spirals into despair, her mirror begins to shine; with a touch, Kokoro is pulled from her lonely life into a resplendent, bizarre fairytale castle guarded by a strange girl in a wolf mask. Six other students have been brought to the castle, and soon this marvelous refuge becomes their playground.
The castle has a hidden room that can grant a single wish, but there are rules to be followed, and breaking them will have dire consequences. As Kokoro and her new acquaintances spend more time in their new sanctuary, they begin to unlock the castle’s secrets and, tentatively, each other’s.
With the thoughtful whimsy of Before the Coffee Gets Cold, the exquisite textures of A Tale for the Time Being, and the youthful resonance of Your Name, Mizuki Tsujimura paints an intricate portrait of a cycle of loneliness that can only be broken by friendship, empathy, and sacrifice. Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a mesmerizing, heart-warming novel about the unexpected rewards of embracing human connection.
I picked up this book while I was on vacation hoping to find something that would fit my mood. I was expecting a contemporary story translated from the original Japanese, but what I found was something much deeper than that. The story follows Kokoro, a young girl who has recently decided not to go back to school. She’s been bullied by one of the other students and worried that the student will keep her promise to kill her, Kokoro decides the best thing to do is stay away from her junior high school and just stay home. Her mother is quietly furious with her, her father thinks she’s wasting her potential, but Kokoro doesn’t want to deal with the trouble and more worried by her threats than anything else.
One day, the mirror in her bedroom begins to glow. Surprised by what is happening, Kokoro steps through the mirror to find herself in a massive and abandoned castle. She’s greeted by a little girl wearing a wolf mask who tells her alongside six other kids around her age that they’re about to embark on a hunt for a Wishing key. If you find the key, you can make one wish and it will come true. However, there’s rules around the hunt; the castle is only open from 9AM to 5PM Japan time, you cannot bring other people into the castle, you cannot let anyone see you pass through the mirror, and you have only until March 30th (which is roughly 10 months) to find the key and make your wish or the castle will disappear forever.
As the students settle into hanging out in the castle instead of going to school, they each learn a little bit about each other. One is obsessed with video games, while another falls in love with each of the girls. Another is a musical prodigy while the other comes to the castle from Hawaii. Throughout the story, you learn more and more about each kid figuring out the pieces of their life that they’re not willing to share fully at the beginning. At first, I thought this was a bit annoying. My perceptions of the book was that it would be a massive scavenger hunt, cut throat as each kid fights each other to find the key, but the story is very different than what I imagined. In fact, it’s quite the opposite as they do whatever they want within the confines of the castle. When I finally understood what actually is happening in the story, I became completely enamored and enjoyed every moment of it.
The story dives deeply into the themes of childhood and teenage mental health. While Kokoro may be escaping the bullies at her school, each of the students refuse to go to school for one reason or another. As their secrets are revealed in the story, it turns out that their issues are just as big as Kokoro’s. This really fascinated me to see someone discussing mental health especially when it comes to young people who for any other intents and purposes are good students who work hard. Some face their parents, some face some real bullies, and others face horrors that no young person should ever experience. I loved this dissection creating teenage characters that aren’t vapid and silly who only focus on relationships and superficial things. It’s about young people who are lonely coming together to share in their loneliness.
It truly moved me to see these characters grow throughout the story. But the other aspect I truly loved was the castle itself. While the themes of mental health played vital role, there was still the story of the castle, the wolf girl, and the wishing key. While I will admit it’ll take some time for the kids to finally start the hunt for the key and much of this novel is inspecting their lives and mental well being, it did surprise me at the end when everything finally came together. It combined my favorite kinds of science fiction and fantasy stories; falling through doors that open up into new worlds,. finding friends in the most unlikely places and people, and hoping for a brighter future with room to really make a difference in someone’s life.
I absolutely adored this story and it really opened my eyes to the kinds of stories I’m in the mood for. I definitely recommend this to anyone who is feeling lonely this holiday season and it will have something that both the literary fiction/magical realism crowd as well as the speculative crowd would enjoy.