Was St. Xenia of Russia divine — or just plain mad?
Xenia, the beloved saint who lived in the 18th century, gave up all her possessions after her husband died so she could dedicate herself to helping the poor. Her decision to live in the slums of St. Petersburg so horrified her family — she was born into nobility — that they attempted to have her declared incompetent. And as her actions increasingly drew attention to the poor, the royal court of Catherine the Great began to view her as a threat.
In her new historical novel The Mirrored World, Miami author Debra Dean breathes life into the distant figure of Xenia, turning her from a dusty religious icon into a flesh-and-blood woman who channeled the greatest pain of her young life — the loss of her husband, a singer in the empress’ Imperial Choir — into a mission from God.
Dean doesn’t attempt to diagnose Xenia’s behavior. Instead, she tells the story as an observer, through the eyes of Xenia’s younger cousin, Dasha, whose life is shaped by her deep friendship with the woman who became a famous soothsayer and healer. But Russia itself is perhaps the strongest character in the book, a frosty seductress of swirling snow and mean hovels, velvety furs and glowing embers, cross-dressing costume balls, an ice palace, even an Italian castrati.
Xenia’s early life is marked by a terrible fire in 1736 that consumes an entire district of St. Petersburg, sending the girl and her family to live with Dasha’s family. But even then, Xenia is clearly different. When the girls hear wolves howling in the distance, Dasha shivers with the fear that the wolves are coming to eat them. To Xenia, though, the howls are a beautiful, mournful song: “Listen, she is singing of how lonesome she is. . . . There, her mate is answering. It must be a very beautiful sound to her.”
The scene sets the tone for what’s to come, a story played in a minor key, of love, loss, broken hearts and longing. Even when Xenia meets and marries her soul mate, Andrei, the book sounds a melancholy note, with Dasha noting that “I am conscious that I have violated a tradition of storytelling: a wedding shall signal the happy close to a tale.”
But Xenia and Dasha’s lives have only begun. Xenia, happy in marriage but disheartened by the requirements of life at court, begins to long for a baby. Dasha worries no man will marry her. Both of their lives will be marred by tragedy, but each will eventually find her way to peace and even happiness.
Dean, author of the critically acclaimed The Madonnas of Leningrad and the short story collection Confessions of a Falling Woman, writes with an internal focus and a wistful grace that suit the subject and the time period. In her skilled hands, history comes alive. You can almost hear the sleigh bells tinkle and the sled’s runners squeaking through the snow as the minarets and domes of St. Petersburg appear on the horizon.
But even though the setting is romantic, the writing is far from sentimental. Dean’s portrayal of the cut-throat court life is fascinating — the casual cruelty of the powerful, the glittering excesses, the intricate rules for proper behavior. A fabulous mask of fanned-out peacock feathers, with two holes cut to allow the lady’s eyes to peer through, is dismissed by the ladies of the court as lacking because it doesn’t have gold-tipped feathers. When the court travels with the empress to visit a nearby lake, the miles-long procession carries all the empress’ furniture and thousands of her dresses.
In another disturbing scene, Dasha and Xenia visit the ice palace, a replica of a real palace carved for the empress’ amusement. The empress used the palace to stage an elaborate marriage production, forcing a jester to marry a hunched old woman and then spend the night on an ice bed, stripped of clothes. When the two women enter the bedroom, they spot a tuft of ragged hair frozen to the ice pillow, bloody at the roots where a bit of scalp remained.
In The Mirrored World, Dean takes the bare framework of an extraordinary life and weaves an absorbing and intimate story of devotion around it. Though the world she creates is harsh and cold at times, it is the warmth at its center — the power of love — that stays with you in the end.
Amy Driscoll is a Miami Herald editor.