TRENT DALTON Lola in the Mirror. Reviewed by Michael Jongen
Homelessness, a mother and daughter on the lam – Trent Dalton’s third novel sprinkles magic dust on Brisbane’s grim underbelly.
I was bothered by Lola in the Mirror. I enjoyed Trent Dalton’s earlier novels Boy Swallows Universe and All Our Shimmering Skies, and Lola shares many of the qualities that made these titles much-loved bestsellers: the Australian magic realism; strong underdog heroes; a cast of eccentric, wise characters and mentors; and miraculous coincidences. It has a strong plot that compelled me to read to the end, yet I was not completely satisfied.
Our protagonist has lived her life on the road with the woman she believes to be her mother. She has no name as they are running from the law – her mother has committed a horrible crime – and she is waiting for her eighteenth birthday, when her mother will reveal who she is before going to the police and confessing. In the meantime she is forever trying out new names and considering what they mean:
‘Selena?’ I whisper. Selena means ‘moon’.
‘Vera?’ I whisper. Vera means ‘true’.
‘Wendy?’ I whisper. Wendy means ‘friend’.
Names are dangerous for girls on the lam. Names could get you busted on the run. If Mum ever blabbed my real name to me, and I then blabbed my real name to someone, and then someone blabbed to the wrong someone else, then my mysterious ol’ Mum could go to jail for what she did to my dad. I try to tell myself I don’t need a name. Plenty of things in the world don’t get names.
The novel is set in Brisbane, with the pair living in a disused motor home in a junkyard in West End. The van is festooned with the young woman’s drawings and a mirror that contains Lola, a glamorous and damaged character with whom the protagonist conducts an internal dialogue. Lola means ‘sorrows’ and I will now refer to the character as Lola, though it is not her real name, which is revealed at the end of the story
One of the conceits of this novel is that each chapter is preceded by excellent drawings that serve as prologues. Lola thinks about her life as being the subject of a guided art tour sometime in the future narrated by a prominent English art critic in New York’s MOMA.
Screwy as all get-out I know, but, truth be blurted, Mr Buckle has really helped me to stand back and assess with clarity and perspective what has been a deeply unusual and unsettling life on the lam. Sometimes when I’m nervous or scared or something worse than both those things, ol’ E.P. Buckle comes into my head and starts yabbering and yabbering and suddenly I feel like I’m someone else. Then I feel like it’s not necessarily me who’s living through these things. It’s someone smarter, more talented, braver.
Both mother and daughter work in the black economy as drug couriers. They are based at fishmongers, which is a base for a lucrative drug operation conducted by the book’s villains, Flora Box and her son Brandon. As homeless people they are part of Brisbane’s demi-monde, invisible to most people.
There is a tragic drowning, a revelation, and a police operation to catch the Boxes. Lola also meets a young man with whom she forges a connection.
At this stage the plot becomes quite exciting and tense, but the novel still feels messy. Dalton’s previous young protagonists, Eli Bell and Molly Hook, have been placed in hard economic and social circumstances and like Lola they are naifs working hard to overcome their destiny. However, unlike them, Lola’s story is contemporary rather than historic, and she is a new adult rather than a child. Dalton has said that his aim in writing is ‘turning misery … into something moving and magical’, however this story might have been more satisfying without the sparkle of magic dust festooning it. It may be Dickensian, but it’s Dickens as interpreted by Lionel Bart. If this was a film I would expect the characters to break into song.
Nonetheless I am confident Lola will find readers who will enjoy the story of a young woman overcoming the odds and redeeming herself through the power of positive thinking – and a touch of phantasmagoria.
Trent Dalton Lola in the Mirror HarperCollins 2023 PB 512pp $32.99
Michael Jongen is a librarian and you can find him as @larrydlibrarian on Instagram and Threads.
You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.
If you’d like to help keep the Newtown Review of Books a free and independent site for book reviews, please consider making a donation. Your support is greatly appreciated.