It is a peasant belief that, as we are all equal in God’s eyes, He must surely confer on fools unseen, compensatory gifts. And so our peasants attend fools with great reverence and scrutinize their gibbering for veiled wisdom and prophecy. Even the more enlightened prefer them in their charity over the ordinary poor. For this reason, the streets are thick with counterfeit fools who don chains and profit by feigning madness. The credulous lump all these together and call them the blessed ones. Because I have known Xenia as she was–bequeathed every wordly advantage of wit, modesty, and riches–I know she is not a pretender.
I received a review copy of “The Mirrored World” while at Book Expo America, and I had the opportunity to meet with the author. This book is a perfect fit for me, as I am a bit obsessed with Russia. The book is scheduled to be released this August.
“The Mirrored World” is a novel by Debra Dean, who also wrote “The Madonnas of Leningrad.” It tells the story of Xenia, a Russian Orthodox saint who lived in the 18th century and was famous for her charity to the poor.
The story is told from the point of view of Dasha, Xenia’s cousin. The girls grow up in the same household and are introduced to Petersburg society at the same time. Xenia falls in love with Col. Andrei Petrov and marries him, but then a tragedy strikes and she begins her descent into madness.
The “holy fool” is a theme that is often found in Russian literature, because they are believed to be God’s chosen children. Even the tsar can’t speak against them, and it is believed that their words contain wisdom. It was both fascinating and heartbreaking to watch Xenia go from a respectable woman of society to a holy fool who lives among the beggars, but at the same time we see that her transformation brings her a sense of peace and happiness that Dasha envies.
Dasha makes a perfect narrator because she is able to grow up in society but then drift on its outskirts. She is able to observe, but is still independent enough that she can have an impartial view of what’s going on, both politically and in her relationship with Xenia. I particularly enjoyed Dasha’s choice of husband (Spoiler: He’s a eunuch).
Debra Dean’s writing contains a great deal of historical detail. I was impressed by her knowledge of Russian history and culture. One such detail that stood out to me (and which I researched later out of curiosity) was that tea wasn’t widespread in Russia until the 1730s when Catherine the Great began regularly importing it. This story takes place before that, and so tea is treated as something special for rare occasions.
I also enjoyed the way that Debra Dean highlighted the excesses and corruption found at the Petersburg court. Events such as the forced marriage of a jester show a lack of concern for the feelings of the common people, and we even get hints of Catherine becoming a slutty monarch as she takes the throne (note: this is also historically accurate).
While parts of the story are sad, I didn’t find it depressing. I would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Russian history and culture, or for fans of historical fiction in general.