Book review: Mirror in the Sky, by Aditi Khorana

Tara Krishnan is the only Indian girl in her school, and her very, very white community knows her family mainly because of her father’s Indian restaurant. She lives an isolated, lonely, frustrating life, feeling out of place in a landscape built for people who aren’t her. That’s before NASA detects a strange signal that turns out to a message from a far-off planet…one that’s like Earth, but slightly different. A mirror world, one with small, subtle differences, one that transmits more and more data that comes through as grainy images, broadcasts, signals.

The premise reminds me of The Sparrowbut what happens in Mirror in the Sky is very different. As in Russell’s work, there’s a focus on the reality of what would happen if we discovered a habitable planet with sentient life forms, the chaos, confusion, and excitement that would follow. But while The Sparrow sends our heroes into the unknown of Rakhat, Mirror in the Sky turns inward. When you can see reflections of yourself, you start to wonder about their lives, the life you could have lived, how many more mirror worlds are out there.

If you’re coming to Mirror in the Sky suspecting hard science fiction or even speculative fiction focusing primarily on the mirror planet, you’re going to be disappointed. But you should read this book anyway, because it’s superb, with a very engaging, driven plot and wonderfully realised characters, beautiful language, and an honest introspection on what it means to be Indian-American, and how a single event can change the course of your life.

Seeing how different people react to the discovery of the new planet is the driving thrust of Mirror in the Sky, turning it into a character study not just of those surrounding Tara, but the world at large. A Japanese woman becomes a figure of huge public interest when her mirror image shows up in a transmission. Scientists try to figure out what’s going on and communicate about it to the rest of the world. And Tara reorients herself and finds her footing.

For Tara, the discovery of the mirror world sets off a chain of events that leaves her in with the popular kids, suddenly surrounded by friends and drawn into their complicated political maneuverings. It also, perhaps inevitably, draws her to love, and the things that come with it, including, sometimes, the pain that comes with loving someone who doesn’t relate to you in the same way. As she’s trying to figure out how she was suddenly swept up into the arms of the school’s most popular — and most dangerous, as popular people often are — something troubling is afoot at home.

Tara’s mother goes into a sort of meltdown, an existential crisis, glued to the television to watch the raw footage over and over again. I love that we see counterpoints within Tara’s own family when it comes to how people respond and engage with the news. I love that we see an authentic version of what happens when someone believes the find is some kind of message, and also something terrifying, of what happens when those people seek refuge or explanation through a higher power or authority — and what happens when unscrupulous people exploit them, too.

Mirror in the Sky is part of a slowly growing generation of books with diverse representations, but it stands out from the pack. I’m growing a little concerned about the direction that diverse representations are taking, as some are highly superficial, painfully shoehorned in for diversity points and attention. This troubles me on its face as lazy writing and crass commercialism, but also because of how it will set diverse representation back — most of these books are written by people in positions of dominance attempting to capitalise on what they see as a publishing trend, and many are receiving critical acclaim.

This book is not one of those books. Tara is not defined solely by her heritage, but it’s a big part of who she is, and Khorana engages with that and explores it. We are never allowed to forget that Tara is Indian-American, but it’s also not constantly shoved in our face as some evidence of progressivism — she’s a balanced, rounded character with experience that reflects the real life world behind her author. Khorana knows what it is to be Indian-American, what it is to stand out in a country where white is the default and many communities are hostile to desis and members of the Indian diaspora.

I desperately want to read more from Khorana, because Mirror in the Sky was an amazing demonstration of the ability to write haunting, wonderful, thrilling prose, to produce an extremely plot-driven novel that didn’t sacrifice characters to narrative, to ask important questions about identity and culture, to integrate authentic, well-rounded diversity into a narrative. Tara isn’t Indian just because, to score points, to try to capture a market: She’s Indian because that’s who she is, and that’s who she needs to be, and this is the kind of characterisation we so desperately need and are not getting enough of, something that needs to change, and something that we must honestly discuss as we talk about the need for diverse books. Diversity bandaids aren’t going to fix the problem of poor representation on the page and behind the pen. Books like this one are what’s going to demand that the industry cede ground to everyone’s experience, not just a narrowly-defined norm.

Image: Seema, Harsha K R, Flickr