The Mirror

Lynn Freed, Author
Lynn Freed, Author Crown Publishing Group (NY) $21 (224p) ISBN 978-0-517-70320-5
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The talented Freed (The Bungalow) delivers a tour de force in this diary of an ambitious, headstrong, sexually independent lower-class Englishwoman who comes to Durban in 1920 to serve as a housekeeper for a Jewish family. Agnes La Grange, the name she takes for herself, is smart, ruthless and confident that her beauty ensures her a triumphant ""future"" she can't fully define. Watching her reflection in a mirror as her elderly employer makes love to her, she feels strong and empowered. Pregnancy is no deterrent to pragmatic Agnes, as she uses her body to acquire--in addition to her illegitimate daughter--the means to buy the Railway Hotel; a husband; another, more elegant hotel; several lovers; a divorce; and an education in refinement. None of these acquisitions, however, satisfies her craving for the kind of freedom a woman of her time could gain only through the sacrifice of conventional values. Through the vicissitudes of her life she remains self-centered, restless and obsessed with remaining unfettered, repeatedly spurning opportunities for security and love. Captious and stubborn, she is unable to demonstrate maternal love until her daughter is discovered by her father's family and moves in with them. Agnes, her heart touched at last, is paid back in kind by her now hard-hearted girl. Freed dares to make her heroine a modern-day Becky Sharp who reflects with stinging candor on the men who sexually excite her and those she finds distasteful. Agnes is also outspoken about society's hypocrisy in granting respect to men who have power and money but not morals. She mellows with age, wisdom and the acknowledgement of fate, however, as she ironically sees her granddaughter achieve the future she meant for herself. Though Freed takes risks by not sugarcoating her bold heroine's behavior, she succeeds in establishing a credible personality. Sepia photos grant an authentic period feel to the book, which is handsomely formatted to resemble a journal. (Sept.)
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