My thanks to Ruth Richardson and Doubleday/Random House UK for a review copy of this one via NetGalley.
This was in some ways a strange read, rather hard to classify and yet one I ended up enjoying very much.
Our story opens with Kokoro Anzai, a teen who has just started junior high but who we see is unable to go to school anymore because of what she faced there. She spends her time in her room, unable to eat properly, watching TV but not taking it in, not wanting to open the curtains, and certainly not ever stepping out. Her parents are very supportive, not forcing her into going to school but also find themselves helpless, since they don’t really know what she’s going through, and how they can help her (I found them refreshing since the stereotypical parent would not have reacted this way). Then one day, in Kokoro’s room, the mirror begins to glow and she is drawn into a different world. Here she meets a young girl in a wolf mask who tells her that this place, this castle will be open to her and six others—Aki, Masumane, Rion, Fuka, Subaru, and Ureshino—different from her and yet like her, who have also entered this place through their mirrors, for a period of a year, until the 30th of March. In this they must find a key and the one who finds it can have their wish come true. There are rules of course—the castle is open only from 9 to 5 and anyone who stays back after the appointed time will be eaten!!!
Told essentially from Kokoro’s viewpoint, we travel between Kokoro’s world and the world of the castle. In the real world, we start to learn what Koroko has faced at the hands of bullies, led by the ‘popular’ girl in her class, and how this had made her fearful of even stepping out of the house, even though she would like to have friends, and go to school—in fact school is the only world she can conceive of at that point. The world in the Castle at first seems to Kokoro no different from junior high—but as she begins to get to know the others, she finds she actually begins to have friends. With her we begin to see little titbits of each of their lives, and as the book moves on learn their stories. Each of them has faced some problems in their lives because of which they are unable to attend or face school—we learn of this and also of their different talents and interests. But there is more that connects them than first meets the eye, and as we read on, secrets are revealed and we also see the power of human connection—that by helping and supporting one another, much can be overcome, and one can even come out of the deepest recesses.
To start off with I will have to say that one will have to suspend disbelief a bit when reading the book because fantasy and reality intermingle throughout (in fact at some level, this reminded me a little of the anime/manga Fuishigi Yugi/Curious Play in which also the fantasy part connects up with reality in unexpected ways). At some level, one has to see it as a piece of magic that helps these kids face their problems, and gives them the strength to pull out of it.
When it started out, more than the fantasy element in the story, it was the real world that interested me—what had actually happened with Kokoro, would she be able to overcome it, how, and aspects like that. But with the fantasy element also came the other six characters and slowly we begin to learn about their lives and stories and this too begins to grip you. You want to know what they have faced, and want that things turn out ok for them too. Most of them have faced pain and hurt, and one really begins to feel for them. (One also realises how something that may seem ‘minor’ from one person’s point of view could affect another so much more deeply, perhaps another reason to be more conscious of one’s actions.)
The castle is a place of solace for them all, where they can escape reality and its problems, do things that interest them (each of them has a room there plus common spaces)—as time passes rather than being in their rooms, they begin to go to meet each other and spend time with each other. The key and the wish are secondary for it is the comfort that the castle provides that they need. They also begin to realise how they can support one and another, perhaps not just in the castle.
This story had so many secrets, twists and turns, some of which one doesn’t see coming at all. The characters try to unravel them as we go along, but answers are not always easily arrived at, and there is more than one twist awaiting us. This was an element I really enjoyed in the book.
The book deals with a lot of difficult issues, from bullying and harassment to death and loss, but, it is still heart-warming and at the end of the story one, comes away feeling positive and full of hope, knowing that things will be ok.
I loved the plot, liked the characters and the incorporation of fairy-tale elements, and found this a really touching read.