Reviewed by Akram Herrak
A powerful tale spanning generations about abuse, mental illness, and the influence of societal norms
Leslie Kain’s first novel is a potent, deep, and thorough psychological investigation of one family through generations.
Two identical twins, Devon and Gavin, and their little suburban family fulfill an idea of the American dream, yet the feeling of comfort that comes with it is never present, not even in the start. Something is wrong and one can feel it, and that something will prove to be deadlier than expected.
Secrets in the Mirror opens with Devon and Gavin playing in their yard shortly before their 16th birthday. Devon jokes with his brother about the fact that he is ten minutes older, and this makes him superior, smarter. What is first seen as playful jostling between twins proves to be a superiority complex that is rooted in deep psychological issues, aided by a father, Tony, who clearly has a favorite, taking every chance he can get to praise Devon as the better twin and belittling Gavin in the process.
What might have begun as a superiority complex is soon revealed to be a Narcissistic Personality Disorder, leading Devon from one problem to the other, and dragging his family alongside him, his father justifying and encouraging his behavior, and his twin and mother suffering deeply in the process.
The problems grow with the twins’ age and deepen in seriousness and repercussions. As Gavin attempts to escape the destructive nature of his family, its tides pull him back into the midst of its turmoil, challenging every bit of progress he makes with the strong bond of family that keeps him tied to generations-long issues that range from anger issues and toxic models of masculinity to serious abuse, addiction, and involvement in organized crime.
The novel opens strong, casting a powerful spell on its reader with two brilliantly written characters and a visible conflict in their dynamic, a hook that keeps one reading until Secrets in the Mirror throws the first of its many punches, amplifying its spell to keep you turning pages to find out just what else is wrong with this family.
It doesn’t only instill feelings of pity and concern for the family but also genuine interest and fascination with a destructive dynamic that is explored through chapters that narrate the two different points of view of Devon and Gavin,. One gets sucked into his narcissistic delusions and the catastrophic problems they give birth to, and the other fights against the quicksand that is his family to break free and find himself, struggling with his love for them and his twin specifically, which proves to be a challenge to his journey.
As his counselor tells him, “you’re so focused on saving your twin, but he has to want to be saved, for himself. In the end, you have to save yourself.”
Leslie Kain gives special attention to building her characters thoroughly to the point that even the most dysfunctional of them seems relatable to a certain degree, giving a threatening presence to the issues they face, insisting on the fact that this is not “something that only happens to others.” It is very much present, a lot more commonly than one might think. The story is laid out in such a way that there are periods of high tension, what I previously referred to as the punches, and periods of relief, where we see life get back to seemingly normal order, but there is always a feeling of unease and impending doom; the issue is never fixed, only buried until it resurfaces again.
Secrets in the Mirror can occasionally feel drawn out, especially in these segments of relief, but expectancy keeps one on their toes with the knowledge that there is more to be unveiled. It maintains this pattern and concludes it with a powerful ending that answers all the important questions the novel asks throughout its long journey, leaving the reader with a deep feeling of satisfaction, amplified by the highly emotional ride that manages to earn deep investment in its ups and downs.
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