The White Mirror: A Mystery

  • By Elsa Hart
  • Minotaur Books
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by Weina Dai Randel
  • October 7, 2016

This evocative cultural thriller asks readers to play detective.

A historical mystery set in 18th-century China, The White Mirror is the stunning sequel to Jade Dragon Mountain. In this new novel, Li Du, a former librarian with a mild manner and acute perception, arrives during a snowstorm at a remote mountain near the Tea Horse Trail, a place famous for trading precious tea but infamous for thievery and murder. Li Du is greeted by a lone monk praying on the hard, frozen ground, his hand clutching a silver blade thrust deep into his belly.

The death of the monk falls upon the secluded region like the snow. Most puzzling is a round circle painted on the monk's chest — a white mirror, a symbol of fear with cryptic meaning. Does it come from the Devil? Does it relate to the monk's mysterious ability to foresee the Dalai Lama's incarnation? Is it a curse?

Trapped by the storm, Li Du takes shelter inside a manor owned by a physically imposing owner and his attractive young wife. But Li Du is not the only one stranded in the valley. Sharing the warm hearth is a band of strangers which includes an inscrutable woman from Lhasa; a foreign priest seeking converts; his Chinese translator; a religious leader — the young fourth Chhoshe Lama — returning home; his shrewd protector; a crude merchant familiar with the secret passages through the mountains; and an old hermit.

As Li Du questions the identity of the monk, readers learn the convention of incarnation: the power structure in Tibet and the belief system which binds every man and every woman. These passages, so imperceptibly woven, could be easily read as a means to educate readers unfamiliar with Tibetan culture. But the true meaning is felt when the novel reveals a family's heartbreaking sacrifice.

Storytelling, a major method of pastime in Jade Dragon Mountain, also takes a dominant role in The White Mirror. But if you read it for amusement, then you're terribly wrong. Here, in the sequel, stories are used as clues, and everything, including how and what the storyteller conveys, is connected to the true motive behind the monk’s murder.

Parallel to the investigation of the homicide is the subplot of Li Du's past. Transient but poetically written, his memories surface like a cloud of mist hovering over a hot spring. These reflections paint a brash image of a young librarian taken under the wing of his mentor, echo their candid conversations, and eventually reveal the reason for Li Du’s exile.

The past, then, serves as a mirror to Li Du, through which he sees his old life in the Forbidden City. But the mirror of the past reveals what turned Li Du into the man he is — his disillusionment with belief. Hamza, a good friend and storyteller, says this of belief and truth: “These games are won not by the king who knows the truth, but by the king who controls the currents of belief.”

So, in plain sight, we find clues about the slain monk, yet readers remain uncertain as to the identity of the murderer until the very end. When the final revelation comes, even the most perceptive readers will be stunned by the ingenious craft of author Elsa Hart.

Li Du's character evolves over the two novels. In Jade Dragon Mountain, he is a solitary, reluctant man forced on an investigative mission. In The White Mirror, Li Du shows another side of himself: tormented, questioning, and seeking the truth he so values. The sequel also highlights some features this reader deems important, such as the friendship between Li Du and Hamza, and a rare reproach, during which Li Du chastises his friend for obsessing over a bathing woman — a moment of humor that demonstrates humanity.

The White Mirror is impeccably written, lucid, and evocative. With a sophisticated style, the novel underscores remarkable cultural details, gripping intrigue coded with history and enigmatic symbols, and the secret of dangerous conflicts existing between China and Tibet.

Weina Dai Randel is author of The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon, historical novels that tell the rise of Empress Wu, the sole female emperor in China. Click here to see her recent television appearance and here to read an interview with her on the Wall Street Journal Real China Time blog.

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