Audacious and self-absorbed, the woman we meet in Lynn Freed 's deliciously bold third novel, The Mirror, is an anomaly in 1920's South Africa. Agnes La Grange, as she has chosen to call herself, would be an exception wherever she lived. An author of extraordinary talent, Ms. Freed pulled no punches in Home Ground, a previous work based on her childhood in South Africa. Candor has been her hallmark, and now she evidences courage in presenting an unsympathetic protagonist . However, the gifted Ms. Freed infuses this fascinating, earthy figure with such joie de vivre and resolute determination that Agnes wins us over.
Relating her story in diary form, spanning 66 years, Agnes is as unsparing of herself as she is of others. After immigrating to South Africa from England, she finds work as a housekeeper for the Moskowitz family, an older man, his dying wife and Sarah, their youngest daughter.
"I came into that house of sickness just after the Great War, as a girl of seventeen," her 1920 notation begins. A mirror, the gift of her employer, is pivotal. "...For the first time," she writes, "I could look at myself all at once, and there I was, tall and beautiful....After that, there was never a place where I didn't have a mirror. It was fixed in me, this way of considering myself. I couldn't do without it."
Beauty is empowerment as she embarks upon the singular pursuit of a future she cannot define. Pleasure is taken where she finds it, even in a menage a trois with sailors whose names she does not ask.
Finding her way in the world with a skewed moral compass, Agnes is an indifferent parent, describing motherhood as "another form of service." Invited to church, Agnes thinks, "It was a long way I'd come from being frightened half out of my wits by the men of God, and I wasn't going back."
Little made Agnes turn back. Confident and self-possessed, not even becoming pregnant by her employer stays her relentless pursuit of an independent, amorphous tomorrow. In fact, the birth of her illegitimate daughter, Leah, provides her with funds to buy the Railway Hotel where she acquires a newspaperman husband who dotes on the child.
Nonetheless, she continues to be restless, searching, cavalierly discarding opportunities for security. She takes several lovers, a hunter beloved by one of her few friends, a tycoon who gives her lessons in grooming and deportment, as well as a "trader from Mozambique, with not one word of English."
Assisted by the tycoon, she purchases a more luxurious hotel. Now, she no longer stands in the stalls at the race course, but sits in a box sipping champagne. Yet, when she is befriended by a society woman and introduced to the privileged existence she had sought, Agnes views it as empty, writing, "Here was a woman wasted if ever there was one with poker on a Wednesday afternoon, and the races every Saturday, and a fuss when no one would take her dinner dancing...All her passion was wasted, her power too." After time among the wealthy, Agnes is eager to return to her own hotel, where she can plan menus, and has "who knew what to look forward to in the future?"
Ties to her former employer's world are reestablished when Leah, who has demonstrated a gift for singing, enters the eistedfodd (a vocal competition), adjudicated by Sarah Moskowitz. Bewitched by the child, Sarah begins to tutor her, and soon learns that Leah is her half sister. A tug-of-war for the child's heart and future begins.
Leah leaves her mother's hotel to live with Sarah and her husband, with whom Leah falls in love. Despite Agnes's warnings that he's "a tailor's dummy, if there ever was one, a fancy man, any woman's fool," Leah becomes pregnant with his child. As the circle comes round, it seems that Agnes will not realize her aspirations but they may become manifest in Bess, the grandaughter Leah signs over to her.
A final diary entry is made in 1986. Agnes is now an old woman, "thick in the hips and the ankles, and the skin dry as tissue paper. I walk with a stick...." At the end, as in the beginning, she walks proudly but alone, with "no need to ask any more what lay ahead."
What a remarkable gift Lynn Freed has given us in this beautifully crafted story. The Mirror is sheer pleasure to read; Agnes is an unforgettable woman.
on April 30, 1998
This heroine is intense and passionate, living most of all for the men & sexual relations that make her feel most alive. She creates herself, inventing a past and even her surname, winning wealth through her shewdness but not allowing it to become her idol. What is her idol? Perhaps the one man she can't fully have or perhaps her own beauty and insistence on freedom... By the end of the book she has gone from young girl to old woman, remembering a life immensely successful in some ways, yet bitter and perhaps emotionally crippled too...a life that, like all lives seen closeup, is difficult to evaluate--as ambiguous as it is clear, as emotionally empty perhaps as it is passionate. She leaves England as a poor young woman with all her money hidden in a purse she wears around her neck. She never gives that purse up either really or symbolically. It's the emblem of her commitment never to lose herself in a compromise with the world--a commitment that is both her strength and her tragic limitation. Perhaps, having started her rise to wealth as a housemaid, she is in constant fear of a return to servitude in her relationships with others. But there are many ways to see her, and each reader will find his or her own. Every woman with a drive for independence will find this book fascinating--at times horrifying.
THE MIRROR is breathtaking at moments in its portrayal of the cruelty, the possessiveness, and the love that blaze through human relationships, particularly the mother-daughter relationship. It is intense, fast-moving, fascinating and thoroughly convincing from the first line to the last. Magnificent.