The Mirror World of Melody Black
Abby, the narrator of The Mirror World of Melody Black, is a freelance writer with impulse control problems. In the first chapter, she finds her neighbour dead when she knocks on his door. She is unperturbed and steals the dead man’s cigarettes while she calls the authorities. It is a strange reaction, and the first hint that Abby’s world view might be skewed. The second is that she sees the death as an opportunity to write a series of articles about urban and personal alienation, setting in motion events that lead to her life unravelling.
Abby is a strong character, excellent in conception and execution, all the more impressive as a female character written by a male author: smart, complex and eccentric, with only a touch of the manic pixie dream girl trope creeping in. She carries ecstasy in her purse just in case: “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” Abby is also bipolar.
The story is informed by the author’s experience of manic depression, something he explains in an afterword, and it is far richer for it. In particular, the sections that deal with Abby’s attacks of both mania and depression are very, very good.
As the story progresses, the personality traits that were charming a few pages ago start to turn sinister, and the reader realises that she is not so much independent as isolated by her illness, while her family and partner try but fail to really understand her.
Extence uses a combination of literary imagery and character study to grapple with interesting ideas of mental illness. When someone suffers from a personality disorder, how much of his or her personality is them and how much is the illness?
The author is on a mission, and like a missionary he sometimes wears it a little too proudly, leaving his narrator lapsing into lectures. “You have to remind them that seeing a psychiatrist or taking medication is not the same as having had your former personality surgically removed.”
Unfortunately, in this book about polarity, there’s as much bad writing as good. Barely functional tertiary characters and half-finished threads weigh down the plot. The pace drops off sharply in the final third, right about when it should be gearing up to knock you out.
The Mirror World... is an uneven book, but important. One closes it feeling as though you’ve just read a very good personal essay jammed into an ungainly novel. ZC
Hodder & Stoughton, 352pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 14, 2015 as "Gavin Extence, The Mirror World of Melody Black". Subscribe here.