I had the privilege to read a first draft, long ago now, and I recommend the story on many levels. The story grows like pictures in your mind; great escapism.
by Angela Hart
I loved reading this book, its a real journey into a mythical land and truly inspiring. I enjoyed the different characters and how they matched each other. It was an easy read but also thought provoking and stimulating. Thank you.
by Nora Stewart
As we begin our trip with Ana, leaving her teens and moving from a self-renounced medieval privilege to her own renaissance, we get the feeling she has no interest in becoming the subject of some troubadour’s love song or any knight’s lady waiting in a fortified manor house for her man to come home with the meat and mead. She’s interested in neither shame nor honor. The holy grail of “Course of Mirrors: An Odyssey” is a story of one’s own. This is not your mom’s fairy tale.
A medieval mystery play, a miracle play, directed by an evil Preacher, brings Ana a quick and unwanted celebrity. But the Preacher is a vaudevillian, the sacrifice, like the Catholic mass, intended to be bloodless. Fine, Ana wonders, but what was his plan for her if she was not to die? And something about the Preacher, his looks, his bearing, his power to pander, attracts Ana. We don’t always want what’s good for us.
We are on a rogue adventure in a picaresque tale where disguise and subterfuge are necessary and ordinary. Ana dresses as a boy, learns to live off herbs and small animals from her mentor Rheine, and, in the course of their travels and travails, embraces a realism rooted in the fairy tale. For example, now hiding from her mother now searching for her girl disguised as a boy, in the hold of a boat where,
“Far too many horses, mules, sheep, goats, fowl and pets were cramped together with hardly any ventilation. The sickening stench of urine and droppings eventually defeated me. At daybreak I retched and escaped onto the first deck. Bent with pain, I was violently sick over the railing, onto the oars below.” Also realistic is the humor; Rheine says, “I’d an inkling your night would be disagreeable.”
The miracle play motif is picked up by a traveling theater troupe: “Rheine had squeezed my hand on occasions. The irreverence brought to the miracle made us simultaneously cry and laugh with the audience. Humour softened my bitter memory. I told myself that the saint business was a mob dream.”
But we are as quickly brought from a saving humor to a murderous reality: “People and animals thrashed in the water or floated lifeless in the wake of the burning…The men pulled three bodies into their boat and attacked the rest with oars. They pushed the living underwater to their deaths.”
In the space of a few episodes, then, we are caught in our runaway’s fallopian fall from innocence to experience, pushed by a stubborn insistence on an existential rebirthing, from parental expectations to a daughter’s commitment to freedom. The contemporary allegory may have its roots in the counter culture movement of the 1960’s, when costume and disguise, stage renaissance fair updated with hallucinogenic lighting, pretend sacrifice, and children on the run from the neurotic, war damaged psyches of their parents figured out new ways to live and tell the old stories.
In any case, the future is never far behind, where our decisions have consequences. This is time travel, in the form of foil character Cara’s journal: “A handful of us are perched on the flat roof of a skyscraper; I can’t see the faces of the people with me, they are strangers. The tower sways like a ship tossed about in an ocean, climbing a rising wave, only to plummet. The tower tilts. I slide and cling to the leaded rim of the flat roof. There is a sudden lurch.” Cara’s time altered mirrored narrative within a narrative both clarifies and complicates Ana’s predicament as the plot unfolds like a house of falling playing cards. The story’s movement is metallic, its setting competing communes, its joy food and drink, its darkness plague and plundering and penury, beggary and politics. Its themes include independence, movement and flow, archetypal psychological imprints: the quest, journey, river, the map; loveless marriage and surrogate parental forces and mystery births; instinct and intuition, magic, alternates – including love and sex and the confusions one brings to the other.
The writing style moves with the themes. Some of the descriptions are like Hieronymus Bosch paintings, people burning in fires, drowning, children screaming, animals too, faces hiding in the brush. As our heroine prepares for her first kiss, though, the writing changes to the lavender prose of a teen romance novel. An entire chapter is given to what becomes the disappointing epiphany, where the “peeling” of one’s clothes reveals a plush orange that screams when split. She gets used to it, but then the prose turns to the stark realism of relationships: “Naivety is a curse. Crushed like a rose and tossed into the pale remains of a fire, I was of no use, not even as fuel for kindling. I should have asked the river to take me when it offered to.”
There is an economy to the writing that is expedient, efficient. A history of a people and a land must be told, but so must a personal diary be explained. The narration moves from first person to third person without any introduction or worry. The switch is simply necessary to keep the story moving. And our first person has other ways of knowing, of omniscience. Sentience appears as a kind of hallucinogen usually hidden within things. Perception pulls life force from stone, going forth as well as taking in.
How serious is all this? First, it’s great fun. And shouldn’t writing, particularly the writing of a novel, bring pleasure to both the writer and the reader? The risk is a flatness, two dimensional characterizations, an animated film, the artistry of which undercuts its own reality. Myth when expanded usually fills with irony. Second, there are borrowings of form from myth and fairy tale that legitimize the atmosphere of magic and fantasy. But it takes a great leap of imagination to enter an invented world open eyed, to pretend even after all pretense has been lost. But this is the writer’s explanation of things, of life, of a life, anyway, this book. In some purviews, every thing must be explained. So the mechanical pencil might come to explain safe sex.
Of course sex is not to be mistaken for love, or the prostitute would be out of business, but does the withholding of sex from one’s willing marriage partner signify un-love? Ana is consumed by the adults in her life, ignored or suffocated, and suffers from the only child curse, which requires the fantasy playmate so she’s somebody to talk to. From the pretend playmate the child learns mimicry. The playmate passes on the talisman. There is a kind of shorthand to the method that results, again, in a two dimensional telling, even though the attempt is a mimesis of the whole. When does the whole break into parts of sentimentalism, and from there to irony? “My poetry, he [Lionel] said, is devoted to the feminine spirit.” Ana responds, a severe critic: “They were bad poems, overly sentimental.” And this only a few pages from sharing Cara’s poem the reader may find sentimental in its longing to find some meaning in the “void.” Later, Professor Ruskin will fill in the blanks. We must remind ourselves the sacrifice was staged. But even a staged sacrifice has consequences. That’s where the repetition comes from. “It breaks my heart that the feud of brothers should repeat itself into another generation. It’s like a curse.” No, it’s not “like a curse”; it is a curse. The curse is metaphor, allegory – but even the language of the physicists can’t adequately explain what we either see or don’t see. All of creation is just that – an artist’s rendition, a depiction, a deduction.
But the epiphany does come, or comes down, and “she will compose her own song.” A song of one’s own. A myth of one’s own. “I could no longer strangle my voice.” She composes her own poem:
“I’ll kick your ghost
out of here – I’ll make no more
bargains with your fear…”
But have we instead cut a deal with our therapy? The troupe now performs a parody of the miracle, as if we need reminding it wasn’t a real miracle to begin with. “In the shadow of each mask lies desire.” Desire for what? Power? Or to be used by some mad man’s “mad ambitions?” And what’s the ambition, the obsession, all about? We’re back to teen romance, now darkened with a certain amount of experience: “Unsure whether to laugh or cry, I cancelled my response, flattening my lover’s pleasure.” As if he cares, which might be part of the attraction. By the time we get to Batin’s place, we’re ready for the details of the dark side. We come across “Cults of Ecstasy” and the “pit” of “correction.” Are these bridges to the real world?
We continue to meet new characters, travel, encounter new adventures. The book is divided into 29 numbered chapters, each divided into smaller, titled sections. There is a prologue and a short epilogue, and useful lists of characters, and a map and a list of places. The lists contain short descriptions of character and place. Time moves back and forth, like eddies in a river. We fall deeper into the encyclopedic epic. We are not out of trouble yet, as the short section “Cockroaches in the hellhole” makes clear. Ana is saved from a “sickening concoction of smells – rancid fat, stale urine, sweat and rum,” and “broken teeth.” Little Snake is a welcomed if late well-developed character. Cassia appears. We discover what “dissolves a curse,” and what it’s like to make love “truly naked.”
What gives shape to a life drifts off with words. We close the book, glance up, and there we are, again, leaving, looking for something new. Myth is individual experience repeated, over and over again, until it becomes universal and a story everyone understands. Myth is not false news. It’s a way of telling a story.
Course of Mirrors: An Odyssey, by Ashen Venema; 2017, Matador, 377 pages.
by Joe Linker
Course of Mirrors is the type of book that will be a great many, varied things to different readers. Lovers of fantasy will revel in the world Ashen Venema has conceived for her character, Ana. This world, “set in a mythical time on earth,” is full of breathtaking scenery and natural beauty and peril, shadowed by a complicated history of the people and politics of that world. Readers of history will recognize common strains, cultural attitudes and ramifications from the jostling for power that resonate in our own time, and remind of periods in our own history. There is a supernatural element: Ana’s soul-sister Cara, who reaches out across time and space. And adventure-seekers will appreciate this picaresque that follows Ana on her quest through fictional realms but also her own consciousness—an aspect that, no doubt, won’t escape tuned-in readers. The author, Ashen Venema, practices transpersonal psychotherapy, and for many years has shared her thoughts on spirituality, art and other topics on her inspirational blog. I have enjoyed her writings there and looked forward to the publication of her novel, an excerpt of which I had read many years ago, online.
A confession: I have problems reading fantasy; I always have. While I appreciate the brilliant minds of the authors I know who create these elaborate worlds and intricate plots, it is this comprehensive world-building (which fantasy lovers crave) that, in the end, loses me. I have a hard time keeping track of what’s happening, and I’ve often said that the only way I can get through a fantasy novel is when the characters strike a realistic chord and become people I can care about. I’m a writer of literary fiction and that’s what I most like to read—stories of the inner life, stories about people and their problems. And so, for me, Course of Mirrors was a beautifully written story about Ana’s emotional and spiritual journey. Because in addition to being an exquisite fantasy tale, steeped in myth, it’s also a coming-of-age story, a family drama and a love story.
Ana has lived for some time, quite literally, between her estranged parents. Their dwellings are on either side of a bridge and Ana carries messages back and forth. It’s not a happy foundation for a child: “The pointless darts of blame, bouncing off their armored hearts, collected in mine as debris.” At the crossroads of the novel, when Ana is contemplating setting off on her own, she feels the presence and pull of something beyond her world, in the existence of Cara, and in moments where she seems to travel outside herself:
“A being took shape, transparent, and with eyes of infinite kindness. Words came on the breeze. ‘You are. Remember!’ Everything around me shimmered from within. I was bridge, river, riverbed and water falling from the cliff, the aria of water. I was air, breeze and water dust rising. I was mirror to mirrors—looking from beyond mirrors.”
A reader could contemplate this passage alone for some time but for this reader, it signifies the beginning of Ana’s journey, which is both an inner one, to the buried memories of childhood and to the core of her being, and an outer one, rife with adventures and learning. For me, Course of Mirrors is many things, but I was most strongly drawn to Ana’s spiritual odyssey, which eventually leads her to realize: “I am more than Ana. She exists in the blink of an eye, while I am multitude—stars, planets, elements and creatures—all beings live in me, forever. They grant me existence. I grant them existence.”
This is no spoiler; Venema’s novel will delight and inspire on any number of levels. It’s truly a multi-faceted, endlessly inspired read, with a page-turning story and vivid characters, and countless ideas to contemplate while you’re waiting for the next book in this series.
by Mary Vensel White
"Course of Mirrors" is a well told story such that it evoked vivid images in my mind all the way through and it was always necessary to see what would happen next. It is an allegory of the pains, joys and perils of one person's healing journey through life. Its a fairy story where the characters seem more fully human than is the case with some famous literature in this genre and whose sensual appetites extend beyond the oral. The author has created a fascinating world.
by Rob Leech
I read Course of Mirrors this summer and couldn't put it down. The characters are well drawn and sympathetic - even the bad guys - and the storyline is compelling. I can still recall very clearly images of different parts of the story as if you had painted them or were recounting them as a storyteller. An odyssey well worth making!
by Chris Newbery
Questing, beguiling, enchanting...
by Ruth Paris
ASHEN VENEMA worked as a photojournalist in Munich, until she moved to the UK during the 1980s – when motherhood inspired her to pursue a career in transpersonal psychology. She has previously written and published articles, short stories and poetry.
In 2011 Ashen co-edited 'Heart of a Sufi,' a prism of reflections about a very unusual Sufi teacher, which Troubador has converted to an e-book. http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=2180
'Course of Mirrors' is Ashen's first novel.