Let Carole Johnstone take you on a tour of MIRRORLAND (Scribner, 306 pp., $27), the elaborate imaginary world invented by El and Cat, a pair of twins, during their gruesome childhood in Edinburgh. Like a fun house hall of mirrors, this alternate reality is terrifying as well as diverting.
Years have passed. Now El is missing, presumed dead — and Cat has reluctantly returned home from a long exile to help find her twin. Someone (could it be El?) is leaving mysterious clues for her. But can we trust her unreliable narration? “No one has ever lied or hidden the truth from me better than I have,” she admits.
In this unsettling, labyrinthine tale, it is hard at first to tell who the villain is — or even how many villains there are in a family with a great deal to hide. The book unlocks its mysteries slowly, twisting the knife a little deeper with each revelation.
One person can help Cat wade through the morass: familiar, sexy Ross, who loved both sisters (or so he says), dated Cat and then broke her heart by marrying El. Should Cat take him at his word when he declares that she is the one he wanted all along? Or should she believe what El told her friends, that Ross had turned dark, abusive and dangerous? “Mirrorland” will unsettle you as you accept, and then discard, every instinct you have about each of its characters.
Northern Ireland’s brutal era of sectarian conflict did not end with the peace agreement signed in 1998, Flynn Berry reminds us in NORTHERN SPY (Viking, 278 pp., $26), a chilling, gorgeously written tale of a modern community poisoned by ancient grievances. Life goes on in the province — people work, raise children, see friends — but everyone is required to take a side: Protestant or Catholic? United Kingdom, or United Ireland?
Tessa Daly, a BBC radio producer, has just returned to work from maternity leave when she glances at the television and sees that her life is about to fall apart. There on the screen is her beloved sister Marian, her face obscured by a black ski mask, pictured at a gas station that’s in the process of being robbed by armed intruders. The Irish Republican Army claims responsibility. Is Marian a terrorist?
“It can come as a shock,” a detective tells Tessa, “to learn that someone you love has joined.”
Berry is a beautiful writer with a sophisticated, nuanced understanding of this most complicated of places, where the Dalys and their friends live in fear of the I.R.A. “They tell us when to be scared, when to be quiet,” Tessa says.
Desperate to help her sister and protect her baby son, Tessa is dragged further and further into a shadowy, dangerous world of weapons caches, undercover operatives, police informants and bugging operations. This is a perilous place of clashing allegiances in which the friendliest person can turn out to be the most committed of terrorists. Berry keeps the tension almost unbearably high throughout, even as the plot sags a bit at the end.
At the heart of the story is Tessa’s fierce relationship with Marian, almost a metaphor for Northern Ireland itself. “Our last argument, about a film that she liked and I hated, went on for so long that near the end I thought we were about to switch sides and argue the other’s point,” Tessa says.
Oh dear, you think as you begin Peter Swanson’s deeply entertaining EVERY VOW YOU BREAK (Morrow, 308 pp., $27.99), what would I do if I found myself in this situation? (Not that you ever would.) (Fingers crossed.) As the book opens, Abigail Baskin, three days away from her wedding, spots possibly the last person she wants to see: Scottie, the random guy she drunkenly hooked up with on her bachelorette weekend. He appears to have followed her to New York to derail her marriage.
Should she confess to her fiancé, Bruce? He is wonderfully attentive and very rich, but also concerned about the issue of fidelity. “Are you sure nothing happened in California?” he asks. She goes ahead with the wedding, deciding that discretion is the better part of valor.
Sadly, she and Bruce do not appear to be headed for wedded bliss on the secluded island resort he takes her to for their honeymoon. It features homemade Oreos, no internet access, no cellphone service and no easy way off. Oh, and there is Scottie, renting an adjoining cabin!
Swanson’s easy writing style and skill at pacing propel a plot that is as absorbing as it is unlikely. What starts as a sober morality tale we can all relate to (hypothetically!) turns into something else entirely, with tiny hints of both “Lord of the Flies” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” If there is a lesson here, it is that no one should marry in haste.
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