The book review I read described The Mirror Thief as a combination of two other books I liked very much, Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
The overall construct is genius: linking, and taking place, alternatively, in Venice, Italy, (from the Fifteenth Century); Venice Beach, California, (in the 1950s); and the Venetian Hotel, in Las Vegas, (essentially present day).
Which seemed to be an evolutionary step beyond Cloud Atlas, whose separate texts don’t have a single over-arching setting or motif, (at least not that I could see), as well as Foucault’s Pendulum, which, while relating events over thousands of years, effectively takes place in the present. (at least as I remember it)
What Seay doesn’t do, however, is commit to each text the way that Mitchell did, opting, instead, for a relatively consistent omniscient narrator, focusing on three separate protagonists, one for each time period / setting. While, I guess, someone could quibble with the “authenticity” of each text, the genius of Cloud Atlas (at least in my mind) was that Mitchell, for each section, picked a narrator, a time period, a setting, and, most importantly, a form, and then maintained the internal coherence, style, voice, and integrity.
Like Mitchell, Seay avoids a straight re-telling of what is essentially the same story across three different time periods / settings. The protagonists, and events, seem to have a great deal in common, but ask the reader to try to put much of it together, rather than drawing a one-to-one parallel between and among the events and characters. Indeed, as explicitly in Foucault’s Pendulum, (and perhaps implicitly in Cloud Atlas as well), the central theme of the Mirror Thief is the search for some hidden connection that is believed to exist beneath the surface.
You don’t get, with The Mirror Thief, the same type of comprehensive history lesson in Western Civ that you get in Foucault’s Pendulum. Which seemed to center on an argument about history (perhaps as opposed to, and/or intertwined with, religion), which, at the end, is at least arguably revealed to be little more than an elaborate (and likely false) conspiracy theory.
But what you do get, (which was, in my mind, largely missing from Cloud Atlas), is a central pre-occupation that connects all three stories, namely: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which is then linked and explored through the history, practice, and religion of alchemy; mirrors, of course, and mirror-making; and, finally, gambling casinos and games of chance.
Perhaps inevitably I found myself preferring one story over another. I really liked the Fifteenth Century Venetian tale of the mirror thief himself, which reminded me of another Umberto Eco book, Baudolino, which I also liked very much. Second, to my preference, was the 1950s story in Venice beach about the younger Stanley, and his interaction with the author of the poem “The Mirror Thief”. (Unlike Cloud Atlas, you don’t see the actual poem itself; only pieces of it.) (For better and for worse.) I wasn’t as interested in the present day story. Not that it was bad. Just didn’t find the protagonist as compelling, and the plot seemed a little strained.
The three different protagonists are interesting in that, while not necessarily “bad”, they each and all live outside of the law. They do bad things, according to societal norms and dictates, (and in terms of harming others), (who may or may not deserve it to varying degrees). But they each seem to have some more-or-less-definable code, and are likely forgiven somewhat for their trespasses, as they all seem compelled by some deeper longing and pursuit of something: That underlying connection and truth which casts the shadows on the walls of the cave; is reflected in the mirrors; can be transformed from iron to gold; or determines the way the cards, or the dice, or the roulette wheel, are dealt.
As Seay himself observes:
“The reflection never shows you the world as it is. But it does show us things about the world. In this way, too, perhaps it is not unlike a book.”
The Mirror Thief is a good one.
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