Reviewed by Jordan E. Rosenfeld
I have to admit I’m a sucker for the underdog, the downtrodden. Give me a character who has lost everything, or is about to, and I am yours. Zoe Brooks’ novel of magical realism, Girl in the Glass, does not disappoint.
Anya is an orphan in her teens, living in an indeterminate time and country, under her domineering aunt’s “good will”—though her life is far from good; her parents are dead, she is at best a slave, and is routinely punished for infractions. Her punishment involves trips to the broom closet, where she is deprived of food and water for days on end. But this is no Cinderella story, for no fairy godmother or deus ex machina helps Anya out of her miserable circumstances. Though Anya is helped by the love of the housekeeper who looks out for her, she must rely upon her wits and the loyalty of her Shadow, Eva—a supernatural counterpart like a sister, who is not human.
When Anya nearly dies in the broom closet after rejecting her cocky male cousin’s advances, and is then ‘promised’ in marriage to a lecherous older merchant, she and her Shadow get the hell out of there. They make a treacherous escape by night, setting the two on a journey across desert terrain to freedom that will cost them more than either imagines.
The writing alternates between lyrical and straightforward:
“I will have to say it: ‘I am Anya and I am nothing’. I will look down at the floor as I say it, so that I don’t see the smile on my aunt’s face, so she won’t see the defiance in my eyes. She will get her victory. She always wins these battles. I know it, she knows it. But one day, one day she will not.”
Anya and Eva’s journey is one part coming-of-age, and another part coming into their own. After spending their lives in isolation and servitude, the world is theirs for the taking. Since Anya is the protagonist, it is her story we follow most closely as she takes a lover, loses him, becomes the concubine of another more dangerous man, and eventually finds a new home and livelihood in the perfume shop of the boisterous Elma. All the while Eva, the Shadow who is not supposed to feel human emotions, seems to become dangerously human in breadth and scope.
Brooks does not rely on any heavy backstory for Anya’s history or what, exactly, Shadows are, making Eva’s presence all that much more powerful for its lack of explanation. And in the end, Anya loses every ally she gains, forced ever more to rely upon her own inner wisdom and strength and setting up the reader for Book Two.
The only issue I had with the novel is that the protagonists change names twice in their escapes, which occasionally left me confused. Otherwise, my only criticism was a desire for more—for more scenes, more pages, more depth of these characters I came to love in a matter of pages.
What Brooks has wrought is a story reminiscent of the original Grimm’s fairy tales: a dark and cautionary story of transformation and healing, a heroine’s journey to becoming an adult woman. It’s written with gorgeous language and a deep mythos that recalls Greek myths and Jungian psychology, a feminist treatise on what it takes for a woman to find her place in the world and in herself.