Saturday, September 15, 2012

"The Mirrored World"

Debra Dean’s bestselling debut novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a #1 Booksense Pick, a Booklist Top Ten Novel, and an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year. It has been published in twenty languages. Her collection of short stories, Confessions of a Falling Woman, won the Paterson Fiction Prize and a Florida Book Award.

Dean applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Mirrored World, and reported the following:
From page 69:
It is said that as the Mongol horde approached the walls of the city, fountains of water sprouted from the ground around them. Khan’s army retreated and watched from a remove as God caused the city to be swallowed into a deep lake. Many pilgrim to Lake Svetloyar to pray and to drink from these waters. Holy persons have sometimes reported seeing the lights of the invisible city glimmering in the black depths or hearing, faintly, the tolling of bells and the murmured prayers of the ancient inhabitants. There are even stories of pilgrims who have gone there and never returned, or they have disappeared for a time and then reappeared on the banks of the lake with no memory of where they have been.

That evening, we processed down to the water, where hundreds of candles had been set adrift and twinkled in the summer dusk. We knelt in the damp grasses and turned to watch Her Imperial Majesty take the final steps of the pilgrimage. On her left was Count Razumovsky and close by, Ivan Ivanovich Shuvalov. At the edge of the water, Razumovsky helped the Empress to kneel onto a carpet. Her confessor said the prayers and then, dipping a goblet into the lake, held it for her to drink. When she had drunk, she held a plump hand out, not to Razumovsky but to Ivan Ivanovich. He handed her onto her throne, which had been carried from Petersburg, and she rested her tired feet on a stool.

Across the dark water came the high note of a hand bell, icy and ethereal. Then another bell and another, [...]
Remarkably, this page points right to the thematic core of the novel. The narrator, Dasha, is recounting the myth of the lost city of Kitezh and Lake Svetloyar, where she and her cousin Xenia have arrived at the end of a pilgrimage. (The legendary lake, by the way, remains to this day a popular destination for devout Russians.)

In the novel, it’s roughly 1750, and Dasha and Xenia are part of the enormous retinue of Empress Elizabeth, who famously took nearly a quarter of the population of St. Petersburg along with her when she went on these journeys, not to mention her furniture and thousands of dresses. The pilgrimage, a holy rite, was transformed into yet another of the Empress’ extravagant spectacles, a traveling circus of bored and petulant courtiers.

However, this is a turning point for Xenia. She has a genuine spiritual experience here, and the end of this chapter marks the starting point of a journey, both figurative and literal, that will take her farther and farther away from the status quo of the world she has known. She will become one of the pilgrims who disappear.
Learn more about the book and author at Debra Dean's website and Facebook page.

Writers Read: Debra Dean.

--Marshal Zeringue