Mona Awad is smiling at me through the screen. “I mean, all art is a mirror, right?” the Canadian novelist says. We are each leaning on one hand, perfectly reflecting each other through Zoom to discuss her new novel, Rouge, in which the mirror is a dangerous place where myths and stories become more real than whatever is on this side of the glass.
The book centres on protagonist Mirabelle, who is contending with the fresh grief of her mother’s sudden death as she falls through the looking glass and into a vaguely French beauty cult tucked into the cliffs overhanging the sea in La Jolla, Calif. “It’s playing with the fact that beauty loves to be kind of French,” Awad says.
Rouge is the Montreal-born, Brown-educated author’s fourth novel, and it features a fantastical element undergirding a profound exploration of alienation that is becoming characteristic of her work. In her breakout sophomore novel, Bunny (which J.J. Abrams’s production company Bad Robot optioned earlier this year), we see a protagonist who could not be more different from the mysterious, strange and terrifying other women she meets in her MFA. And in 2021′s All’s Well, a Shakespearean spell allows for the transformation of an isolated theatre director’s chronic pain into a manic kind of pleasure. (Awad’s 2016 novel-in-stories, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, established her crisp, dark sense of humour in a mode more closely aligned with realism.)
In Rouge, the protagonist’s alienation takes the form of grief, and of a certain kind of abandonment. The setup allows Awad to play with myths and fairytales. For instance, one way to read it is as a twisted, contemporary reworking of Snow White. In the Grimm’s version a woman pricks her finger while gazing out the window at fresh winter snow; she longs for a beautiful daughter with snowy skin, blood red lips and ebony hair. She gets her wish and promptly dies. In Awad’s dark, feverish rendering, the mother starts dead and there are no evil queen usurpers; it’s the daughter whose life is distorted by looking in the mirror, where she sees more than she bargains for.
“I’ve lived with fairytales for so long – I love those stories because they’re so mysterious,” Awad says. “You could sit with them for years and they would still be mysterious to you.”
The refracted reflection in Rouge is no mere plot point; many facets of Mirabelle’s life are a funhouse, topsy-turvy version of Awad’s own experiences. The author and her fictional counterpart share more than a few biographical details: Both are daughters of white, French-Canadian women and Egyptian men, and both grew up as third-culture kids in 1980s Montreal.
“I always wanted to explore the experience of being biracial in Quebec in the eighties, and of being raised by a French-speaking family there, even as I was kind of pushed in the direction of the English language.”
The multiple layers of potential misregistration, between languages, cultural ideals and racial recognition, created fertile ground for a novel that peripatetically shifts between cult ceremonies, the administrative tasks associated with a parent’s death and the narrator’s hazy childhood memories of finding someone unexpected in a particularly enchanting mirror.
The scenes where Mirabelle is remembering her childhood are among the novel’s most powerful, surfacing as long lost memories while the protagonist undergoes quasi-surgical, quasi-spiritual, certainly hallucinogenic beauty treatments. As her esthetician begins what Mirabelle suspects will be a conventional extraction, she finds that the gunk coming to the surface is lodged deep in the past rather than in her moderately congested pores.
During one such treatment, as if watching herself in a film, Mirabelle sees the child version of herself standing in front of the doorway to her mother’s bedroom. She knows she shouldn’t enter – she doesn’t have permission – but the little girl is intrepid, mischievous. Through a clever use of chapter breaks and perspective, Awad weaves the reader into a pyretic web, mired in the murky blue depths of her protagonist’s subconscious. It may be a dream, or a memory, or the kind of experience a child imagines in order to cope with something even darker, but Mirabelle finds herself alone in her mother’s bedroom, drawn toward the back of her closet, where she discovers her first magic mirror.
There, she sees another presence, a shape starts to cohere – something dark, familiar and undeniably strange. The figure steps through the glass, and suddenly Mirabelle is standing in front of Tom Cruise.
Awad confesses she had a childhood crush on the actor, in his Top Gun, Risky Business era. “Of course I did,” she says with a laugh. It was an instinctual choice to have Mirabelle see Tom Cruise reflecting back at her: “Tom Cruise is so emblematic of that era in ways that I think would be particularly important to this kid given her background and what she’s learned to value because of her mother.”
But as with everything in the novel, appearances can be deceiving. The mirror-world figure Mirabelle sees as Tom Cruise frequently reminds her to call him by his real name, Seth. He pointedly dislikes the Eye of Horus bracelet Mirabelle wears, a gift from her father.
The jewellery further alludes to the ancient Egyptian myth of Horus and Seth, who were engaged in an epic struggle for the throne. In one part of that story, Seth attempts to seduce Horus as a display of his power. In another, Horus grows so enraged that he beheads his own mother. In yet another, Seth removes Horus’s eyes, and only one is later restored by an agent of the divine. The elements of the 4,000-year-old myth are ripe for reimagining, as Mirabelle contends with her own mother’s failings, her own desire for recognition and the cursed French spa that’s linked to the night her mother disappeared into the sea.
“I was really interested in working with the character of Snow White and with the mother and the mirror, with that triangulation. And then I also had the Egyptian myth in my head too,” Awad says. She was interested in examining “the way that Mirabelle looks in the mirror. Literally how those two stories inform the dynamic between herself and what visits her in the glass.”
In this way, Awad examines where fantasy and reality inform and intersect with each other, however disturbingly. But her wry style creates moments of comedy even as Mirabelle falls deeper and deeper into the dark depths of grief – and a slightly French beauty cult.
When I ask Awad whether there’s something quintessentially Canadian about being a writer so sharply attuned to both the sublime terror and comedy to be found in particularly female dystopias and tragedies, she begins to nod.
“My first book, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, included a line from Lady Oracle,” she says of a direct homage to Margaret Atwood, who is herself a fan of Awad’s mordant, funny style on the page.
“The thing about Atwood’s work that I love the most is that voice,” she says. “There’s a self-awareness to it, and it makes me feel safe as a reader, like I’m in good hands.” I nod, thinking of the peculiar and enchanting world Awad’s created in Rouge, where beauty and terror stand toe-to-toe.
“I do love that kind of voice in literature,” she continues, “even when it’s narrating a character who’s very lost, it’s the writer giving me permission, to go along.” She smiles. “And so we’re safe, we’re good. We can go on this journey, no matter how dark it gets.”