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(un)locked wardrobes

A House Without Mirrors  house without mirrorsor Ett hus utan speglar by Mårten Sandén

Illustrations by Moa Schulman

Rabén & Sjögren, 2012

Translated from Swedish by Karin Altenberg

Pushkin Children’s Books, 2013 & 2016

Trade paper, 176 pages.

Ages 9-12

{Astrid Lindgren Award 2015}

Of the many rooms of great-great-Aunt Henrietta’s house, there is not one mirror. They’ve all been stored in a locked wardrobe where young, mute Signe goes to hide during a game. This wardrobe doesn’t take her to meet a faun in Narnia; it takes her to a mirror of the house itself, through the passage of time, to an experience that depends very much upon the person who enters it.

Sandén has written a beautiful, atmospheric novel whose undertones are not always that of horror or melancholy, but always something dark and sad. The family that gathers to await Henrietta’s passing are all suffering in some way, and the house with mirrors has a way of transforming them all.

the House of Mirrors interior
interior page. Illustrations by Moa Schulman

Thomas, the caretaker, and his daughter, our protagonist, have lost a son/brother in, what you come to discover, a tragic way. Thomas is an unemployed novelist and separated from his wife and they’ve been living in this large house.  Uncle Daniel who is bitterly divorced and hoping for a good price on the house, brings his children Erland and Signe to stay. Thomas and Daniel’s self-driven sister Kajsa leaves a family business to her (troubled) husband Kjell and brings her daughter Wilma to wait.

The adults aren’t the only ones troubled. Thomasine is full-on depressed and her contemplations run dark. Her cousins are a pleasant distraction and ease her isolation and loneliness; well, two of them are pleasant. The eldest cousin Wilma is a close friend—the bookish and out-spoken Wilma who struggles with her appearance. She envies her attractive mother and sees herself as fat and ugly. Signe is the youngest at 5 and slight and abnormally quiet and still. She is often left to the care of Thomasine and Wilma. Signe’s elder brother Erland is horrible. He has a sly smile and creeps about and spies and engages in all kinds of threatening behavior. Uncle Daniel is of little use there. Actually, none of the adults are all that functional.

“Life is always there around us. So many human lives that they are impossible to count, and yet we can always perceive the unfathomable space in each one of them.”

Henrietta’s is an old house with upwards 20 rooms, Thomasine has counted as she’s the most familiar with the place. But it is Signe who discovers the magic of the wardrobe. One by one, the inhabitants of the house find their way into the wardrobe, while one by one they confront that which keeps them from being themselves or living more fully. The results may be happier, but they aren’t all easier.

Sandén uses the idea of mirror’s ability to reveal and to provide reflection beautifully and with complete subtlety. There is no discussion in the novel about mirrors, other than they are weirdly absent and Wilma is left using a compact to awkwardly apply her cosmetics. The novel does not engage in much, um, reflection. It’s refreshing.

“I had repeated what Hetty had told me, almost word for word. That our lives are shards in which only a piece of something larger is reflected. That there are parts of every human being that are hidden to themselves. And that we need each other to have the courage to see.”

The house with mirrors shows what life in the other house could look like—did look like. Sandén does not model an alternate reality by way of an imaginative play or fantasy, only maybe nostalgia? (which, yes, I know can have its own problems). I applaud the use of another time, rather than an another realm. The house thrived once, it can again; people who lived before you, have stories to tell, wisdom to dispense. As for providing another space to venture into, the space is an interior one and does offer projection and fantastical representations—just not the sort traditional to the fantasy genre. If any genre other than contemporary or historical fiction, Sandén delves into horror.

the house of mirrors interior 2
interior page. Illustrations by Moa Schulman

As Thomasine would reveal, and eventually tell you, A House Without Mirrors is not a novel filled with “any magnificent adventures about princesses and wars and magic, just stories about being born and living and dying.” If you look at life as adventure, like she does, you’d agree that “adventures get no greater than that.” If you do like the escapist, mediating quality of a fantasy adventure, I think a novel like this is a necessary inclusion for your library.  Sandén’s wardrobe and its house of mirrors removes and shields the character (reader) and provides a space to work through the issues characters (readers) are set to explore. But perhaps for some readers, the resource for such resilience requires something more tangible, possibly more available than a prophecy handed down by a wizard—maybe they need an insight handed down from a mysterious great-great-aunt.

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Recommended for 9-13; reader’s who’ve read everything; a serious kids’ book club. For readers of Un Lun Dun; Coraline; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; The Girl Who Circumnavigated…; Museum of Thieves; The Humming Room; or The Secret Garden.

Notes: the novel is translated to English (ala UK); sh*t is used thrice, and perfectly. Sandén is deft with the issues, and uses a light hand–most of the time; just know that there is little softening or sentimentalizing like US writers tend to do in children’s books.

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