UK Publisher: Trapeze
Genre: Young Adult, Realism, Coming of Age story
First and foremost, I would like to warn that this review contains spoilers regarding the plot of the novel. This is partly because I feel that some of the material within this book could be extremely triggering if you were unprepared for it, but also because some of the plot points relate to how the narrative is structured, which I would like to talk about.
The book follows three teens – Red, Rose and Leo – in the September of school after their friend, Naomi, has been missing for two months. Together, the four of them are a band, the titular ‘Mirror Mirror’, and they have found in each other a stable friendship group and a refuge away from all their individual traumas and issues. As the book begins, the group are putting together a tribute concert to keep the search for Naomi going, as police interest has waned due to Naomi’s previous history of running away. Assisted by their music teacher, the group is trying to keep things together when Naomi is found – floating in the Thames, with massive head trauma, and placed in a medically induced coma. There is no assurance that she will ever wake up, or that she will be coherent if she does, so even though Naomi has returned, the mystery of her disappearance is still far from solved. The mystery deepens further when they discover a tattoo on Naomi’s wrist, as she had always claimed she had never wanted a tattoo – and it’s surrounded by bruises which look like fingerprints.
The book is narrated by Red, who perhaps felt Naomi’s absence most keenly. And this is perhaps where the first spoiler warning comes up. The first half of the narrative feels very stilted and uneven, and this is because it is all twisted to avoid giving gendered pronouns to Red, and the ridiculous agender nickname. You are supposed to believe Red is a boy, continual comparisons to Leo and a secret love for Rose threaded heavily through the text to try and lead you down the garden path. But it is immediately obvious during the introductions that things will not be that simple. It was obvious to me that Red was born a girl – what remained to be seen was whether this would be taken further to show a representation of a trans boy, struggling through social expectations, and constantly being faced by the disappointment and disgust of his drunken mother. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case – Red is a girl, and a lesbian, and it felt like this played into so many stereotypes of lesbians that it was an underwhelming reveal. However, once the plot twist is untwisted, the narrative improved because people could speak naturally, and were no longer tangling themselves in knots to avoid using gendered pronouns when talking to or about Red. It equally leads to a more open and honest internal voice from Red – prior to the reveal, things felt stilted and a bit off-kilter, and it was obvious that the reader was trying to be misled into gender stereotypes to presume Red was male; following the reveal, Red could be herself. To that point, I feel like it would have been better if we had been honest about Red’s identity from the beginning – it would have made for a more well-rounded book, and given a more honest and emotive narrative, as opposed to what is basically a very low-level and obvious trick into thinking about gender preconceptions.
The story itself starts slowly, although this may have been because of my feelings of the narrative being uneven, but I found the finale amped up the adrenaline and bombed along quite quickly. And this is where we get to the triggers. Red has to deal with an absentee, philandering father and a drunk, abusive mother – the latter particularly so in the second half of the book. You also get a decent flurry of homophobic slurs in the second half of the book, and bullying based on that. In addition to Red’s issues, Rose is a survivor of a sexual assault – she was drugged and gang-raped at 14, but still has no idea exactly who the culprits were, whilst her disinterested father is occupied with his much younger new wife; and Leo’s brother is a criminal, involved in drug dealing and gang violence, and at risk of dragging Leo down with him. Further to this, it transpires that Naomi was abducted by someone from a ring of people keeping teenage girls in sex slavery – the tattoo is a ‘brand’ matching her to her owner. She was groomed online, and the same is happening to Rose. These are all quite intense subjects, and why I think there needs to be some trigger warnings for this book.
It quickly became very clear that Delevigne has never been to a normal British high school. Despite being British herself, she is two relatives away from being aristocracy, and was modelling for Vogue by age 10. She attended an independent all-girls school until she was 16, the motto of which was “That our daughters may be as the polished corners of the Temple”. Which is why her story, set in a central London comprehensive, rings extremely false at every turn. The students do not wear school uniforms – which, for a UK school, would be extremely noteworthy, as uniforms are very much de rigeur here, and usually these are ridiculously enforced. There have been plenty of news stories of late about students being sent home for wearing the wrong type of trousers for the uniform, my husband once got a detention for not wearing his jumper when he was in high school, and a friend of mine got told off for wearing rainbow socks rather than the approved white, black or blue socks. She was wearing an ankle-length skirt, approximately a centimetre of sock was visible when she walked.
So when the characters are constantly described walking around in their own clothes, it is a detail that niggled at the edge of my mind the whole way. And when Naomi was described as coming into school wearing anime-style wigs, and full-face extreme anime make up (whatever that is), tutus and bodices, I was unable to comprehend that. At my school, we were allowed to wear make-up from year 10 onwards, as long as it was natural (i.e. not drawn-on anime eyes), and in 6th form, when we were allowed to wear our own clothes, the restrictions on that included rules such as never having shoulder straps less than an inch thick. It was continually grating at me every time I heard descriptions of Naomi’s schoolwear, particularly because she didn’t need to dress like that – it added literally nothing to the plot, it just felt like a massive narrative clanger that came up again and again.
There were several other examples of this throughout the book, which made me think Delevigne had based her school on those from American TV shows, rather than any actual research into UK schools. One is that we are told that Rose lives in a mansion, but Leo lives in an extremely rough block of council flats. I find it hard to believe, even in the crush that is central London, that there would be an overlap of those catchment areas. It’s more likely that Rose would go to a well-funded school, and Leo would be in one with classes double the size and half the number of teachers. Another which stood out to me is when Leo and Red are discussing a girl several years older than them, who used to attend the school and was excellent at the harp. Harp. The instrument is not at all integral to the story, it’s just a throwaway line as Red is trying to prompt Leo’s memory on the girl, but it pulled me right out of the narrative. I went to quite a privileged school (not Delevigne’s level, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, but certainly far more privileged than your average state comp, which this school is supposed to be), and no-one in my school played the harp. We had a medieval music group and two orchestras, and no-one played the harp. The fact of someone playing the harp to me seems so rare (and impressive!) that it would always beg comment on the fact of it being A HARP. Had the line been about how the girl was a violin prodigy, or a whiz on the flute, I would not have batted an eyelid – schools often run those lessons, and will sometimes even be able to loan instruments to students who can’t afford them, which in a school that apparently covers areas of clear deprivation, would be likely. But the mention of the harp literally stopped me in my tracks, and I had to go back and re-read it to make sure I had understood the sentence.
Things like this take away from what is clearly supposed to be a realistic and relatable book, a snapshot of kids living a normal life in a typical UK school. Perhaps the catchment area thing could be glossed over, but the uniforms, and wigs, and the fucking harp – those feel like things which should have been guided out of the story by the editor. Their clothes, that weirdly insistent bit of description about anime which comes up again and again, the very expensive musical instrument, someone calling Red ‘jailbait’ even though she is 16 and in the UK therefore of the age of consent, none of these impact the plot, but they came up again and again and every time they did I found them jarring, and they impacted the flow of the narrative because they were just so unrecognisable as a UK high school.
- The plot itself is slow to get started but builds to a decent level of suspense and a satisfying finale. The second half of the book is much stronger because the narrator is no longer having to do contortions to hide their gender. If this had been apparent from the start, instead of being saved up for a fairly obvious twist, the book would have been better for it.
- The book could definitely have benefitted from Delevigne doing some more research on the average UK high school, or at the very least listening when her editor pointed these things out. I suspect there was a play being made for the US market here, which is why changes weren’t made, but it feels very false and lazy.
- Contains a lot of triggering subject matter: homophobic slurs, sexual assault, abusive parents, alcoholism, bullying, grooming of minors etc. etc.
Rating: 2/5 – I edged towards giving it 3 out of 5, because the ending did get me very involved, but the pace picking up for the final quarter of the book doesn’t quite balance out the uneven and occasionally ridiculous bulk of it.