Lola in the Mirror by Trent Dalton

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Trent Dalton is one of Australia’s favourite authors.  His first novel Boy Swallows Universe was a huge success; and was followed by All Our Shimmering Skies.  Both novels contain more than a touch of magic realism but are grounded by aggression and violence both implicit and explicit.  No reader could easily forget the dysfunctional family background from which Molly Hook – the child protagonist of All Our Shimmering Skies – emerges.

The unnamed protagonist of Lola in the Mirror  is aged seventeen – almost eighteen – and lives with Erica Finlay in a van beside the Brisbane River.  She has no name because ‘[n]ames are dangerous for girls on the lam’ [20].  Erica and the girl are running from the law because many years ago Erica killed her partner – the girl’s father – because all he had inside was ‘black monster blood.  That’s the shit that bubbles because it’s hot and troubled’ [11].  But when the girl turns eighteen, Erica will hand herself into the police, and the girl will be able to live the life she is meant to.

Lola in the Mirror is a complex and multi-layered novel held together by the girl and her connection with the various characters and geographically by the Brisbane River.  The author often references the river or – as it is known colloquially – the brown snake.  There are also the frequent references to particular streets and lanes and buildings which leave the reader in no doubt that the novel is imbedded in Brisbane’s urban landscape.  The novel ­is somewhat similar to its predecessors in its gritty and unapologetic depiction of the protagonists’ world – in this novel, it is the world of ‘houseless’ people where threats and acts of violence and disruption are commonplace.  In keeping with the polemic that ‘houseless’ people are ignored by almost everyone else, the hidden places where the people can safely sleep are revealed in their squalor and isolation.

Running through the novel much like a dark and dangerous undercurrent is the illicit drug trade where non-payment of debts will bring swift and violent – and sometimes deadly – retribution; where human life has no value other than its value as a ‘client’ of the dealers.  No reader will easily forget Flora Box and her sociopathic son Brandon and their associate Ephraim Wall.

In the meantime, the girl has her best friend Charlie Mould – a nineteen-year-old alcoholic – and her dreams of living her life boldly like Pablo Picasso and Carlos Casagemas whose suicide at age 21 is said to have inspired Picasso’s Blue Period.  Then by chance, she meets Danny Collins from Hamilton Hill and the son of lawyers.  He is besotted with the girl and, in his initial conversation with her, tells her of his first sighting of her.  Of all the pedestrians in the city, it is Danny who has seen her – to him, she is not invisible and has a presence and this validates her existence in the real world.

The novel is divided into sections each preceded by an illustration by the girl and – as in the best art galleries – its title and a brief description of its significance as in Mum in the Jumper That Covers Her Scars, Walking Silently by the Brisbane River.  This illustration is described as ‘a revealing and tender reflection on the most significant day in the artist’s highly complex youth’ [18].  The illustrations and the accompanying descriptions are a comforting reassurance that the girl does survive her early life and makes a name for herself.

Along the way though more than one death occurs – most quite violently by stabbing or shooting.  It seems almost as if the characters in the girl’s early life are being jettisoned so that she is fully free to embrace her new life as she finally is told her real name.

Lola in the Mirror is a novel in which serious issues such as the crisis of homelessness, the invisibility of those people who live on the margins of the community, the turning away from the disadvantaged, the scourge of drugs and the wrecking of the lives of those addicted to them are brought out into the light.  But these issues are set within a story in which magic takes a part and this creates an excitement and joy to the narrative.

Trent Dalton is a unique writer – his style is unlike much else in literature today.  While perhaps not reaching the heights of Boy Swallows Universe, Lola in the Mirror is nevertheless a great read.

Lola in the Mirror


by Trent Dalton

Fourth Estate

ISBN 978 146075 983 7

$32.99; 490pp

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