Lisa de Nikolits’ first novel is an unconventional treatment of eating disorders, which are often presented in fiction as merely an adolescent phase. De Nikolits shows how such disorders can in fact continue into adulthood. The sufferers appear fully functioning, while in reality their body obsession permeates every facet of their lives.
De Nikolits’ beautiful, ambitious narrator has a husband and a great job designing layouts for women’s fashion magazines. Beneath this successful exterior, however, she is anorexic, bulimic, and deeply obsessed with body image.
Her entire life revolves around her reflection, not least of all her professional life, where she promotes a heroin-chic aesthetic. She subsists on apples and green tea, avoids social situations where there will be buffets, dresses in baggy clothing, and judges her friends and co-workers’ physiques, imagining all the while that they’re judging hers as well. And perhaps they are: de Nikolits has embedded the narrative so deeply within her narrator’s psyche that it’s hard to tell where the neuroses end and reality begins.
Such close proximity to de Nikolits’ unnamed narrator makes The Hungry Mirror an uncomfortable read. Part of this is intentional, and effective – it becomes clear that the narrator is a prisoner of an obsession that exhausts her both physically and mentally.
However, the novel is undermined by too many ideas that aren’t sufficiently integrated into the narrative. The Hungry Mirror is stuffed with references to diet trends, tabloid culture, and statistics about eating disorders and body image. For example, one of the narrator’s co-worker’s announces, “Hey, I want to tell you some figures I found, from Dove. I am going to use them in my screenplay,” and then goes on to state that only 2% of women consider themselves beautiful. In some cases, entire chapters are based around such flimsy constructs. Though the novel’s conclusion is thoughtful and strong, its narrator is too much of a receptor for these Google-gleaned factoids.