Black Glass by Meg Mundell

Set in a near future, Black Glass is about two teenaged sisters who get separated after the death of their father, and are thrown on their own resources in a strange and sometimes violent city.

While it’s the girls’ story the reader comes to care about, there are a number of secondary characters who appear intermittently throughout the novel, including a ‘mood enhancer’, Milk, whose job it is to micro-manage the populace through the manipulation of scent, and an investigative journalist. The journalist is trying to get the next big scoop in a city which has slid beyond the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ into the ‘docced’ and ‘undocs’ – those with and without identifying papers.

In a society where surveillance and control are everything, and the undocumented are prey to all sorts of – fascinating – dangers, the two sisters, due to their lack of papers, are pushed to the edge of survival. While I love a good conspiracy story, the conspiracies in Black Glass – and there are more than one – don’t pay off in the way of a traditional thriller. They are evoked, rather than explored.

Mundell opts for an experimental structure which, for the lazy reader, isn’t straightforward to follow – mostly because the episodic, report-like format makes it a task to get to know and care for the main characters. The girls aren’t traditional ‘heroic’ protagonists, either, as, for much of the novel, they lack a sense of agency, of being in control of their own lives. They have almost no resources at their disposal beyond what comes their way by chance, so it’s hit or miss whether they’ll be able to find one another. With the possibility of a happy ending unlikely, Mundell creates and sustains an alarming sense that these two could be victims in the making.

Had the novel started closer to the events dramatized toward the end, this story could have been truly disturbing and gripping, instead of simply fascinating – but perhaps less true to the possible future society that Mundell has carefully imagined. As it now stands, Black Glass would make a compelling movie.

Black Glass was given “Highly Commended” in the 2012 Barbara Jefferis Award, an “Honourable Mention” in the 2012 Norma K Hemming Awards, and shortlisted for the 2011 Aurealis Awards  (in two categories), and the 2012 Chronos Award. It has been reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge by Tsana – who considers it an outstanding read; Janine Rizzetti, Annabel Smith and Jason Nehrung.

This review appeared earlier this week on GoodReads and is Book 3 in my Aussie Authors Challenge.

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  1. Interesting review. My first reaction was that I’m not sure it would make a good movie but, thinking about it more, I think it would make the kind of movie I don’t actually enjoy, the type of somewhat uncentred “mood piece” that I prefer in book form. (And writing that, I’m wondering if the mood enhancer character was a somewhat ironic insertion…)


    • Hm, you’re making me think now Tsana. What did I actually mean by that? Usually I like SF movies with strong protagonists, not uncentred “mood pieces”…

      My initial thought was that a movie might “anchor” some of the more nebulous qualities of the book – that the viewer wouldn’t have time to puzzle over things, but be swept away, confident all would be explained. (I guess it would all depend on how it was scripted and the selection of narrative elements.)

      Do you enjoy SF movies? I could count on one hand the SF books I’ve read that have been adapted for the screen – though I’ve watched and enjoyed many SF movies – so I’m probably not a good judge!


      • I enjoy picking at the atrocious physics in SF movies 😉 I can think of a few which were adapted from books — a lot of Phillip K Dick, for example, but I think Bladerunner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is the only one I’ve actually read.

        On the other hand, with Black Glass, it’s not so much the weak protagonists that appealed to me (I didn’t particularly like the older sister at all, really). Sometimes I’m just in the mood for something depressing without a clear happy ending. Also, I have very mixed feelings about modern SF, but that’s a long, detailed blog post for another time.


        • That sounds like a post I’d love to read.

          I’m sure many of my favourite SF movies were based on books, not only BladeRunner, but also – probably – Total Recall, Gattaca… Now I can’t think of any – ha!!


          • Minority Report, Paycheck, Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton – also I think Andromeda Strain was a movie at some point?), Bicentennial Man, I Robot (sort of but you have to be a massive Asimov geek to get all the references in what otherwise seems like a Will Smith action movie), I Am Legend (haven’t seen the movie, didn’t like the book), Solaris (on my TBR then my to watch lists), and the obvious one I completely forgot about: 2001 A Space Odyssey.

            But note how they’re all old “classic” SF.


  2. Great review of an intriguing sounding novel. By its own design, in the dystopian genre it is always going to be hard to tie up all loose ends, and in some ways when an author tries too hard to do so I find it really takes the ‘grandness’ out of the work.


    • Thanks for stopping by, Jo.

      I agree about the danger of taking away the “grandness” (which for me means, among other things, emotional truth). That’s the challenge: to make a story gripping to the end, without trying too hard.

      I’ve been discussing elsewhere among the comments on the blog the difference between “story” and “plot”, with story (arguably) being the way the characters are affected by events, rather than the events themselves. I think, on consideration, that this is what works for me about Black Glass. I’m with the two girls emotionally, even though the events are somewhat random.


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