Review: The Sound Mirror by Heidi James (2020)

This is the second book published by Bluemoose as part of their year of publishing women only. I reviewed Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught last month and absolutely adored it, and I jumped at the chance to receive a proof copy of Heidi James’ The Sound Mirror in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to the author and publisher for my copy.

I didn’t know much about the book before I started reading, which actually used to be my default mode for approaching books in my pre-Twitter days. I’d load up my Kindle with titles from lists I made months ago and ‘go in blind’ to whatever came up first. I am getting much more methodical, (and I am reading more physical books these days, with blurbs and cover quotes and so on), but it was quite nice to dive into this blurb-less proof with absolutely no preconceptions. It made the delicious surprise of what was to come all the sweeter.

The first thing I have to state is that James’ prose is beyond stunning. I sometimes like to copy out sentences that I find particularly beautiful or meaningful, and I honestly had to give up as I was just copying out the whole text. From the opening lines, the novel grabbed me and didn’t let go:

“She is going to kill her mother today. But she’s no monster. She’s not the villain. It’s a beautiful day for it, winter sharp, the sky an unfussy blue.”

What a way to start a novel. And it got better and better from there.

The chapters alternate between three third person viewpoints: Tamara, Claire and Ada. The story is narrated in the present tense, which creates a wonderful sense of moving between time and space, entering into the lives of these women at different points. Their chapters each have a unique voice – even though ‘I’ is not used, we are immersed in their worlds by the shifting grammar and syntax which clearly marks out the three stories. Honestly, James does this better than many writers who use the first person for their multiple viewpoints. Claire’s chapters in particular are so full of her personality that I warmed to her immediately.

The three main characters are complex and nuanced. Each has an intriguing starting point: Tamara bears the emotional and physical scars of a traumatic childhood; Claire longs to avoid repeating history and becoming her mother; and Ada is taken away from her home in India to cold, grey England to start a new life. The different time periods are evoked rather than stated, and it took me a little while to orientate myself, but this only adds to the sense of lives overlapping and history repeating itself. What impressed me the most was the ways in which the characters develop and change as the novel progresses, most notably Ada and Claire as their stories are more linear; I was so invested in them as characters that I took their actions very personally, and the frustration I felt when they disappointed me at times was not through them acting out of character but merely proving their human frailty. When fictional characters hurt you, you know the author is doing something right.

Tamara seems to me to have a different role to play in the novel – her narrative dips in and out of her childhood, adolescence and beyond, and her chapters provide some of the novel’s most profound insights into the way in which genes, ancestory and history do not so much guide as lead us:

“You imagine history trails you like clanging tin cans on a wedding car, but you’re wrong. History is a halter that leads, we’re beasts of burden with a ring through our nose.”

The “we” voice that trails her, a sort of chorus, reminded me a little of Akwaeke Emezi’s beautiful novel Freshwater, whose protagonist has gods living inside her. This plurality, the echoes of other lives that reside within us, comes together beautifully at the end of The Sound Mirror, in a way I did not see coming.

The Sound Mirror is a dazzling achievement: a razor-sharp, insightful novel with fully realised characters and a perfectly-judged balance of ideas and story. I will be getting my hands on everything else this author has written as soon as possible – James is a fiercely talented writer, and I am so pleased to have been introduced to her work through this beautiful book.

The Sound Mirror is out in August, published by Bluemoose Books. You can preorder a limited edition hardback directly from the publishers here.


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