Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone

With influences including Stephen King, Daphne Du Maurier, Ruth Ware, and Alexandre Dumas, I was really looking forward to reading this debut novel.  *shivers*  Mirrorland is all goosebumps, sharp edges, gothic disquietude, and a refusal by the author to allow her readers to get comfortable … 

Dark and devious…beautifully written and plotted with a watchmaker’s precision.’
Stephen King

what it says on the cover …

The most dangerous stories are the ones we tell ourselves…

No. 36 Westeryk Road: an imposing flat-stone house on the outskirts of Edinburgh. A place of curving shadows and crumbling grandeur. But it’s what lies under the house that is extraordinary – Mirrorland. A vivid make-believe world that twin sisters Cat and El created as children. A place of escape, but from what?

Now in her thirties, Cat has turned her back on her past. But when she receives news that one sunny morning, El left harbour in her sailboat and never came back, she is forced to return to Westeryk Road; to re-enter a forgotten world of lies, betrayal and danger.
Because El had a plan. She’s left behind a treasure hunt that will unearth long-buried secrets. And to discover the truth, Cat must first confront the reality of her childhood – a childhood that wasn’t nearly as idyllic as she remembers…

PUBLISHED: 15th April 2021
SHELF: thriller | suspense | mystery
AUTHOR: Carole Johnstone
PUBLISHER: Borough Press (HarperCollins)
FORMATS: Hardback | Kindle | AudioBook

I don’t even know if the witch existed. If that conversation ever happened. It’s getting harder and harder, now that more memories are returning – the bad as well as the good – to prise apart what was real and what wasn’t. Perhaps everyone’s childhood memories are the same: part truth, part fantasy. 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.’

my review

This is the falling-dream. The snap of a twig when you’re walking alone. The eyes in a portrait that follow you around the room. The glimpse of something from the corner of your eye. The scrape of branches against a window.  An off-key ice-cream van. Pins and needles. This thriller is all kinds of unsettling; a triumph of tightly-wrought, off-kilter twists and secrets, shadows and overexposed brilliance … it torments every defensive emotional response.

Mirrorland opens to a prologue set in 1998 that’s clearly a defining moment for identical twin sisters, Ellice (El) and Catriona (Cat). At just twelve years old the girls have walked alone through the pre-dawn streets of Leith to reach the harbour.  They’re both covered in unexplained injuries, and Cat’s jumper is soaked in blood.  The vividly descriptive writing hooked me straightaway, but its clarity is sly and deceptive, because when I reach the end of the prologue I still feel I’m on the wrong end of a well-kept secret.  The immediate tension, mystery, and sense of narrow escape certainly make for an impactful introduction. 

We’re then propelled forwards to the present; El has been missing at sea for four days, her husband Russ is beside himself, and Cat is forced to do something she vowed never to do; leave her LA home of twelve years to return to her childhood home, The Mirror House, on 36 Westeryk Road, Leith.

Through Cat’s unbidden reminiscences and snippets of El’s childhood diary, the author reveals, in exquisitely fractured increments, an unconventional upbringing and a strong sisterly bond torn apart by a shared love. It’s full of the luminosity of rich childhood imagination, games and reading … but fringed by something distinctly darker, always lurking at the periphery of the girls’ lives.  The disconnect between Cat’s recollections and El’s notes make it difficult to know whose narrative to trust, and an all-consuming sensation that I’m missing something pivotal is heightened by the conflicting stories of El’s friends and her husband Russ.  

As the days of El’s disappearance lengthen, and the police investigation probes ever deeper, Cat’s thoughts are inexorably drawn back to her deeply troubled mother, and unpredictable grandfather. It’s clear she’s shying away from too deep an introspection, replying on alcohol to cushion the assault of ghosts and memories, but a series of anonymous, all-knowing emails prove too powerful to ignore.  Reluctantly, Cat acquiesces to a deeply manipulative treasure hunt game, revisiting the sinisterly-named rooms of The Mirror House, and unleashing new interpretations of her own, long-believed memories.

The Mirror House is as much a character of the book as the people themselves.  It feels watchful and secretive … and not entirely welcoming.  Admittedly my impression is heavily influenced by the creepily stagnant decor, almost unchanged since Cat and El left it, but after a few chapters back there with Cat, it’s hard to settle comfortably in a house that’s alive with ghosts, whispers, nailed-shut windows, and locked doors with ancient-big keys.  Its malign chill is enhanced by Mirrorland – a secret world accessed through a hidden door at the back of the pantry, and the darkly dangerous beating heart of the house.

To the untrained eye, Mirrorland is the washhouse.  To those in the know it’s a world of pirates, prisons and immense adventures … if you ever made dens and camps as a child, this is the place that would knock your socks off!  It’s a secret world known only to Cat, El, their mother, the boy next-door, and a curiously quiet girl they call Mouse. As the book winds back and forth between the past and the present, the role of Mirrorland distorts from a place of wonderfully colourful imagination, to something more insidious. 

The stifling sense of claustrophobia distends uncomfortably as the book progresses. Cat is coaxed closer to the truth of what really happened that night in 1998, and the fate that’s befallen El. In keeping with the very best gothic thrillers, Mirrorland plays host to these revelations with a deceitful possessiveness, like a dream that leaves you unsettled for the rest of the day. The author leads the reader to these twin climactic events deliciously slowly, drawing out the tension with a casually cruel precision that has absolutely no respect for life beyond the pages … you will not be able to resist the page-turning urgency of this thriller.

What can I say about the final chapters without giving in to the almost overwhelming urge to overshare?  Well, having toyed with my expectations for the last quarter of the book, I can honesty say I found the final twist absolutely sublime. Just when it’s wrung every ounce of tension out of me, and pinched me alert throughout, it launches an enormous emotional attack … a melancholic but satisfying sense of completion.

Hand on heart, I’m still a little off-kilter even though I finished Mirrorland last night.  It’s absolutely cracking and a must-read for every gothic-thriller book lover.  

Thank you to HarperCollins Publishing for sending me an advance proof copy of Mirrorland in return for an honest, impartial review.

Carole Johnstone

©Julie Broadfoot

Carole Johnstone is an award-winning writer from Scotland, whose short stories have been published all over the world. Mirrorland, a psychological suspense with a gothic twist, is her debut novel.

When I read a book, I want to escape somewhere else for a while. I want to feel excited, thrilled, outraged, moved, anxious, shocked, surprised, deliciously afraid. I want to feel knackered the next day because I stayed up too late just-one-more-chaptering. And spend the whole of that day looking forward to the moment I can do it again. I want an unexpected yet satisfying ending that stays with me for a long time. And I always want to find a book I love so much that I wish I could discover it all over again for the first time.

Having grown up in Lanarkshire, she now lives in the beautiful Argyll & Bute, and is currently working on her second novel: a very unusual murder-mystery, set in the equally beautiful Outer Hebrides.

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12 thoughts on “Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone

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