There’s something about the blurb for Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s new novel, The Mirror In The Well (2008), that just makes it all the more tempting. How could anyone not want to read a book that declares “this novel will shock and offend some readers”, even if just to prove that it’ll take more than words scattered across pages to vex them, thank you very much. The obvious concern is that if its ability to shock and offend are its main strength then, as a reading experience, these traits may be its weakness. Thankfully, this isn’t the case and The Mirror In The Well is a strong, memorable piece of writing.
The Mirror In The Well, Marcom’s fourth novel, coming fast on the heels of an acclaimed trilogy about the consequences of the Armenian Genocide, is an erotic tour de force journaling the crests and troughs of an affair between an American woman and her foreign lover, told with an unashamed explicit vocabulary that proves sensual in its own unique way.
Told from both sides of the affair - the woman in the third person, the man in the second; both remaining unnamed throughout - The Mirror In The Well opens with their first arranged meeting, having chanced upon each other at a party. His marriage “one of habit and bitter convenience and notasked questions” and hers, at fourteen years, isn’t going anywhere, especially in the bedroom:
On their first night together, performing cunnilingus, the man triggers in the woman a previously unknown sexual power (”teaches her the unteaching of the limits…that he can bring her to the inside of outness and that she can arrive outward with him”) that leads to a prolonged relationship explicit in both action and the language used to describe it.
…you fucked her twice and not the once she had been lucky to get once every two weeks or month up until this today - the one if she’d been a good and obedient girl and wife and office-worker and citizen.
While the pages that follow feature frequent sex, any accusations of pornography can be dispelled. Yes, the language used can be harsh, featuring regular vulgarisms that some may blush at, but The Mirror In The Well is not a book to titillate, using this sexual awakening to explore layers of identity, sexuality, power, and love:
But perhaps as you make her you do make her fall in. The girl falls in to love, as if love were, what exactly?, the underground stone palace where the lover has hidden the beloved? the deepest well where the serpent lives? And you expect it, demand it: Stop fucking your husband, you tell her, I can’t bear it (fall in to love with me). She stares at you; she is silent and dark looking in the eyes. I love you, you say, and thrust this inside her like your cock: love me back love me back love me only in this possession.Where the serpent recalls the Garden of Eden, The Mirror In The Well is not without other such Biblical allusions, such as the lover of “the girl who thinks that a man is a christ” being a blue-eyed carpenter from overseas. And it’s the traditions of the Bible that the couple fulfil in their liaisons:
…when you are together and naked then all of your human ancestry speaks in your cock and cunt; culture and caste is obliterated and made fine: a man; a woman: and in love, loving each other timelessly, across time and culture and his cock in her cunt and she is happy and he is happy to have stuck it in her: a man and in woman: open: the communion the old books spoke of.Having written three books on her Armenian ancestry, it shouldn’t be a surprise that ancestry is important here, too, with the woman Janus-like looking back to her parents and considering her sons. And, when she deems to “pull open the labia of her cunt, invite the world, her lover, inside” there are hints that the woman is perhaps representative of America, her family’s adopted nation, one indiscriminately built on a history of immigration.
Indeed, America is a theme of The Mirror In The Well, with Marcom asking “is there any where on earth as lonely as this country?” and answering “that we know everything, but we don’t wish to look at it”. In daring to look, the novel breaks out of “this Protestant modern theatre and its roles” and does so in an exhilarating fashion, her style one minute reducing the rush of sex to little more than chemical reaction before upping the ante to herald it in lush swathes of prose-poetry reminiscent of Clarice Lispector’s The Hour Of The Star.
There’s a thread of metafiction running through the book too, with the narrator constantly referring to “this book” or “this scene” - even certain pages. In doing this, we are reminded that this is only a story, it’s fabulist nature making the woman into an everywoman, a female cypher who comes to terms with the very nature of her femininity:
The lover has taught her to love her cunt because the cunt is her center, the cunt is pleasure, the cunt knows and knew him, picked him from a cavalcade of other men.Of course, the harsh language and the range of sex acts described, may shock and offend but that is only a small part of the wider picture. In The Mirror In The Wall the universal is told via the dot of a relationship, getting to the heart of sexual power and reflecting this back for all to see.