by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
Published by Bloomsbury
48 pages, 2005
Helena in Wonderland
Reviewed by Iain Emsley
Mirrormask, the children's novel, is a strange affair. Almost hallucinatory, it is told in the voice of Helena and is illustrated by Dave McKean and images taken from the film. The children in their previous books have dealt with specific incidents, such as the fantastic wolves coming from the walls or the father being swapped for goldfish. Mirrormask is a far more balanced book, dealing with both the adult and the child's perspectives.
Helena is part of a family circus but she'd really like to have an ordinary life. When her mother becomes ill and needs an operation, Helena stays with her father at her aunt's flat and begins a dream-like journey into an alternate world. It's not her fault though, the princess from the other side has stolen her life.
As she gets used to the logic of the new world, she meets Valentine, a sometime juggler. She is mistaken for the princess and is taken to the palace where she sees the White Queen asleep until the balance between Light and Dark is restored. To do so she must don the mantle of the Dark princess and find the mirror mask to restore the players to their worlds.
It is a novel of growing up, but who? That is the question posed. One does wonder whether it is rueful, given that both creator's children are growing up. Children's writing hasn't always dealt with this aspect of the child/adult relationship, normally it comes just from the child growing up and coming to maturity. Perhaps this move began in Coraline, where the eponymous heroine begins to challenge the Other Mother's perceptions of childhood. Coraline perhaps is the most philosophical girl but she maintains a wisdom that is essentially true and so it is with Helena. She remembers her mother's wisdom and so solves the simple conundrum that she faces.
The journey is reminiscent of Wonderland, not the one from Alice in Wonderland but from Through the Looking Glass. Helena is the Alice figure here, moving across the landscape, dealing with her own trials and thus growing up. As you'd expect though, these two twist it intriguingly. She can see the damage wrought by the mirror twin and begins to understand her true position. Its also a fairy tale with the Queen of Shadows being reminiscent of Jadis or the Snow Queen: cold, cruel and doesn't understand her captives. She is updated to be a mother, commenting upon family relationships.
The serious side of the book is set off by the production values. Apart from the glorious art work, which one expects from these two collaborators, the type faces and fonts are offset, changing and don't follow true alignment, letting the reader have fun with this book. Occasionally Helena breaks the authorial voice and reminds the reader that it is her voice, not Gaiman's. One gets the sense that the child has gradually grown up through their collaborations and is now getting ready to fly the nest, wanting to taste real life.
Mirrormask reminds the reader why we read books for pleasure. It is a knowing book and its post-modern narrative pokes at the reader and its references to other stories. It is also a wonderful quest and a delightful fairy tale. What is perhaps slightly unforgiveable is the appalling joke at the end. Mirrormask is sad and joyful, knowing and mysterious and, above all, thoughtful. | September 2005
Iain Emsley is a reviewer and critic. He is researching a history of fantasy in chidren's literature and owns a specialist bookshop.