Debra Dean: Excerpt from The Mirrored World

Excerpt of The Mirrored World (c) Debra Dean.  Printed courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 

The earliest memory—blackness, and in this blackness the sound of church bells clanging wildly—it is of her coming. Clambering down from the bed I share with my nyanya, a treacherous descent in the dark, I go to the window. The dusky summer sky is shimmering. Orange, violet, red—the northern lights pulse and flare—and in the street, a man falls to his knees and crosses himself. People are shouting, their words a blur but infused with unmistakable urgency.  A riderless white horse careens into view. It rears up and then races on, its tail and mane flying like ragged sails behind it. Frightened, I return to the bed and press my body against Olga’s. The next image is that of our bedroom door bursting open and through it, an enormous wolf entering. The wolf says, quite calmly, that its house is afire.

For years, I believed this to be an uncommonly vivid dream. It was only much later, upon hearing my nurse talking about events long past—as old ones are wont to do, as I am doing even now—that I recognized in her story certain unmistakable features of my dream.

There was a terrible fire late in the summer of 1736, the sixth year of Her Imperial Majesty Anna Ioannovna’s reign and the fourth year of my life. The fire was said to have begun in a stable near what is now Sadovaya Street, but it spread like a storm through the city. People fled their homes with only those few things they could carry, icons and tableware, a handful of jewelry, whatever they had snatched up in their alarm. One man was seen dragging his bed through the street. An old woman was found in her nightclothes, clutching a squawking goose to her breast. There was no fire brigade then, nor means to draw water from the canals, and in the end over two thousand houses were lost. What I mistook for the northern lights was the entire Admiralty district being consumed by flames.

What I took for a wolf was Xenia. Her mother had escaped their home carrying a daughter in her arms, five rubles in a velvet purse, and a sausage that had been hanging on the larder door. She crossed the pontoon bridge over the Neva, her elder daughter and a servant trailing behind, and walked until she came upon a house she knew, belonging to her husband’s cousin. They arrived at our doorstep in the middle of the night. The houseman carried Xenia to my bed, still bundled in a fur lap robe and slung on his shoulder.


Debra Dean’s bestselling debut novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad  was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a #1 Booksense Pick, a Booklist Top Ten Novel, and an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year. It has been published in twenty languages. Her collection of short stories, Confessions of a Falling Woman, won the Paterson Fiction Prize and a Florida Book Award. Her new novel, The Mirrored World, is a breathtaking tale of love, madness, and devotion set against the extravagance and artifice of the royal court in eighteenth-century St. Petersburg.

A native of Seattle, she lives in Miami and teaches at Florida International University. Follow her on Facebook.


  1. To Debra Dean,
    I’ve just found this and haven’t read it yet but will take the opportunity to say I loved The Madonnas of Leningrad. Wonderful writing! I’ve told my husband he has to read it.

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