Book review: Lola in the Mirror by Trent Dalton

Saturday, October 7, 2023 Permalink

This is a beautiful story and reminded me of Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe which I also loved. Dalton’s writing sings but he can also spin a yarn and this one – about a 17 year old girl with no name – is enchanting and addictive. The book opens as she’s waiting for her 18th birthday when her mother will turn herself into the police after being on the run for all of their lives, and then – only then – will she know her name.

Unfortunately things don’t work out as planned and she worries she may never know who she is.

Book review: Lola in the Mirror by Trent DaltonLola in the Mirror
by Trent Dalton
on 04/10/2023
Source: NetGalley
Genres: Literary Fiction
ISBN: 146071332X
Pages: 490

A girl and her mother are on the lam. They've been running for sixteen years, from police and the monster they left in the kitchen with the knife in his throat. They've found themselves a home inside an orange 1987 Toyota HiAce van with four flat tyres parked in a scrapyard by the edge of the Brisbane River – just two of the 100,000 Australians sleeping rough every night.

The girl has no name because names are dangerous when you're on the run. But the girl has a dream. Visions in black ink and living colour. A vision of a life as a groundbreaking artist of international acclaim. A life outside the grip of the Brisbane underworld drug queen 'Lady' Flora Box. A life of love with the boy in the brown suit who's waiting for her in the middle of the bridge that stretches across a flooding and deadly river. A life far beyond the bullet that has her name on it.
And now that the storm clouds are rising, there's only one person who can help make her dreams come true. That person's name is Lola and she carries all the answers. But to find Lola, the girl with no name must first do one of the hardest things we can sometimes ever do. She must look in the mirror.

This unfolds via our young narrator, though she switches to third person every so often… imagining she’s become a famous artist and her life has been documented and is being narrated (at some point in the future). In keeping with that theme, each chapter opens with an illustration. There’s later a shout-out to artist Paul Heppell who offers up raw and confronting imagery.

Dalton again uses Brisbane as both an enigmatic and murky character here and anyone familiar with the city will recognise the dichotomy of its bright open spaces and dark corners. And again he offers an engaging array of support characters, some of whom seem larger than life and others just downright evil. Part of Dalton’s talent lies in the fact he is able to extract secrets and truths from people and translate that into something (whether it be fiction or non-fiction) that is both entertaining and confronting. It’s also reminder of the many people who live out there, unseen and the many battles they fight. Or seen and judged before knowing their story. And if Dalton’s books show us anything it’s that everyone has a story. And I can’t help but thinking he’s often able to tell that story better than the person who lived it.

I play nine-ball down at The Well with a fifty-six-year-old floater named Dominique Ferrera. This is the moment when Dom dropped the seven-ball on a jump shot then told me her father, Rhyl, died choking on a piece of steak gristle in the Kedron Park Hotel. Dom shrugged her shoulders and sank the eight-ball with a cushion shot that rolled so cleanly along the rail that I suspected witchcraft. p 18*

Understandably this novel touches on issues of homelessness (or houselessness), drug addiction, alcoholism, domestic and family violence and mental illness but it doesn’t demonise those who are struggling and Dalton sympathetically and empathetically relates their stories of alcoholism and drug addiction – their need to numb themselves and their need to escape.

Those bags killed all the beautiful and brilliant people who were hiding beneath the skin of all those sad and desperate people across the suburbs who liked seeing me turn up on their doorstep. Sometimes those people could see the best versions of themselves and that’s precisely why they needed those bags. Seeing parts of the best versions of themselves was the very thing that was making them sad. p 150*

This isn’t a coming of age story. It’s one of a turning point. Of a young woman thrown a lifeline and needing to make a decision that may change her life – for the better or worse. Like most of the characters here, our narrator appears in shades of grey. She’s far from perfect and makes stupid decisions, but readers will come to care for her deeply.

Anyone who knows Brisbane well knows how the Brisbane river defines (and divides) that city. I read somewhere that Dalton suggests the river is a metaphor here and it certainly plays a pivotal role and not just one of destruction, washing away everything before it. It also cleanses before returning to its (own) indestructible self.

Lola in the Mirror was published in Australia by Harper Collins and is now available.

I received an electronic copy of this from the publisher for review purposes. 

* As this is a temporary electronic version the formatting is really screwy so I can’t be sure of page numbers.

  • Kikki
    December 27, 2023

    Brilliant, bringing love , hate, goodness, evil and madness together in a wonderful swirling deadly whirlpool! I was left with a blinding feeling of lightness, love and admiration for this author and my city!

    • Debbish
      December 27, 2023

      Oh yes, it’s even more special if you know the city… a wonderful book.