Kokoro can’t bring herself to go to school anymore. She has been the victim of an intense bullying campaign that culminated in a destructive assault on her home; if the bullies find her, she is afraid they will drag her outside and kill her.
Kokoro is twelve years old.
Bullying plays a major role in contemporary Japanese fiction, including one of 2021’s most anticipated books in translation, Mieko Kawakami’s Heaven. Lonely Castle in the Mirror takes up the related issue of futoko—students like Kokoro who, for a variety of reasons, simply refuse to go to school.
Without school to order her life, Kokoro watches television and rarely leaves the house. Then, one especially lonely day months later, her bedroom mirror begins to shine. Curious, she places a hand on the mirror—after all, Kokoro asks in a moment of indecision, “How could a portal into a different world not be appealing?”—and finds herself inside a castle from a Western fairytale.
There she meets six other children, also futoko, and the mysterious, vaguely ominous child who calls herself the Wolf Queen. The Wolf Queen assigns them a quest: find the key to the Wishing Room and be granted any one wish.
The narrator offers tantalizing references to other children’s books with magical escapes into other worlds. But the Wolf Queen’s mirror world is fundamentally different. Narnia, Oz, and Wonderland bring adventure to children whose lives are more-or-less ordinary. In Lonely Castle in the Mirror, the villains and challenges the children face are in the real world. It is the castle that is the refuge, the place where they are safe.
That inversion—that the drama and danger are in the real world—makes for odd pacing. Time spent in the castle passes slowly, filled with the mundane. The occupants play video games. They study for high school entrance exams. For large stretches of time, the fantastic barely enters the narrative at all, and some chapters of the novel border on tedious.
The uneven pacing is exacerbated by long reflections on levels of politeness in the students’ speech to each other. Kokoro spends pages examining the nuances of what the other kids in the castle call her: the abrupt “Kokoro”, the polite “Kokoro-san”, or, as she truly desires, the more intimate “Kokoro-chan”. Lonely Castle in the Mirror is translated by the highly-regarded Philip Gabriel, a frequent collaborator with Haruki Murkami, but his translation here may be a little too tied to its native language.
Readers looking for a fantasy novel with a prominent mystery to solve may be disappointed. The key and the Wishing Room are almost afterthoughts; the search isn’t truly important to Kokoro until the novel’s climax. There is, however, a real charm to the novel’s denouement, which ties together the children, the Wolf Queen, and her castle.
Lonely Castle in the Mirror is really about Kokoro’s desperate longing to fit in. Even in a castle full of misfits, she struggles to identify what her relationships are to other people. Her truest wish is to find a friend to help her become part of a group:
I sometimes find myself dreaming.
A new transfer student has started at our school, and everyone wants to be friends with them. The most cheerful, kind, and athletic person in our class. And smart, too.
Out of all my classmates this new student picks me out with a generous smile, as dazzling as the sun, and says, “Kokoro-chan, it’s been such a long time.”
The other students can’t believe it. “What?” they say, looking at me meaningfully. “Do you two know each other?”
In another world, we were already friends.
Ultimately, these very common experiences are what make Lonely Castle in the Mirror a worthwhile novel. Adolescents fight to find their place in the world. Not all bullies look alike. And many people share Kokoro’s greatest dream, to find a loyal friend who will like her for who she is.