“The Mirrored World” by Debra Dean (Harper, 243 pages, $25.99)
In Russian religious tradition, “holy fools” are those who have deliberately chosen a nonconformist life of piety, divesting themselves of all worldly possessions and behaving in unconventional ways. Homeless and filthy, holy fools lead lives of service and are often considered to have the gift of prophecy and the ability to perform miracles. Others may think them mad, but the madness is an act they use to disrupt the complacency of those around them.
One of the best-known Russian holy fools, St. Xenia of Petersburg, left her comfortable aristocratic life, giving away all her money and possessions and spending the rest of her life among the poor. “The Mirrored World,” a novel, imagines the story of Xenia’s life, told through her cousin and friend, Dasha.
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Dasha and Xenia grow up together, the daughters of privilege, concerned only with gowns and gossip and parties, and, of course, finding suitable husbands. Xenia is fortunate, marrying a man who is not only suitable but one she’s madly in love with. Dasha’s fate is different, as she stays unmarried for far longer.
Even amid happiness, Xenia has strange, prescient dreams – dreams that unsettle her when they appear to come true. When her long-hoped-for child falls ill and dies, Xenia plunges into a dark depression, retreating from society and beginning to reorder her life.
But when Xenia’s beloved husband dies suddenly at a social event – in a scene she had seen in a dream but failed to correctly interpret – her life turns forever. To Dasha’s dismay, Xenia gives her money away to the poor, then sells her possessions to have more money to give. She dresses in her dead husband’s clothes, stays out all night, lives on the streets, mixes with the kind of people society ladies do not mix with. A relative tries to have Xenia declared insane to be able to take over her house, but she convinces a judge she is perfectly sane. People seek her out for blessings; merchants offer her food for luck; builders of a church arrive every morning to find work mysteriously done for them overnight.
Through it all, Dasha attempts to keep Xenia well and look after her household as best she can, while trying to retain some semblance of a normal life for herself.
Author Debra Dean – who took readers to World War II-era Russia in her previous novel, “The Madonnas of Leningrad” – dazzlingly re-creates the world of 18th-century St. Petersburg: the aristocratic hierarchy and intrigues, the balls so elaborate that each woman’s gown is marked with ink as she leaves so the outfit may be worn only once, endless banquets and houses full of servants. But Dean sets up a sharp contrast with the precarious lives of artisans and the squalid lives of those not among the privileged, and the distance that Xenia travels in her transition from society lady to holy fool.
Most of the story takes place before and during Xenia’s transition, with little focus on the rest of her life. Her transition – driven by grief at first but with far deeper spiritual roots – is the most interesting part, but since readers get Dasha’s point of view, we get wrapped up in Dasha’s life as well. And as Dean tells it, her life is also unusual and interesting. Because we’re concerned about Dasha too, the book’s ending seems a bit rushed and abrupt, but the story nonetheless holds our attention.
Dean’s lush descriptions transport us to St. Petersburg, giving us a close look into another time and place. The people who inhabit “The Mirrored World” have a shine of their own, and their stories aren’t easily forgotten.