I had just finished my studies at Oxford, and was taking a brief holiday from work before assuming definitely the management of the estate. My father died when I was yet a child, my mother followed him within a year, and I was nearly as much alone in the world as a man might find himself.
Summary: Mr. Vane is staying at his family house, which seems to be quite big, and whose first floor is almost entirely taken up by the overflowing library. This suits Mr. Vane, because he's more interested in books than people. He soon discovers that the library appears to be haunted by a librarian who had served in the family long before, a Mr. Raven. He sees him on occasion and one day, following him through a mirror, finds himself in an entirely new world.
Mr. Raven, now in the form of a raven, gives him riddling advice; he soon finds himself back in his garret. At a later time, however, he follows Mr. Raven again and goes with him to his house, which turns out to be the House of Death, where those who die eventually go to sleep until their morning comes. Mr. Raven and his wife try to convince Mr. Vane to sleep as well, but instead he flees the house in fear, and finds himself finally in his own home again. He's later ashamed of this, and, passing through the mirror again, finds Mr. Raven to tell him that he has reconsidered, but Mr. Raven says that his flight shows that he was not ready; he must find his own way home.
In his attempt to do so, he undergoes many adventures, including meeting a group of children called the Little Ones, who hide from giants called the Bags; nursing an emaciated woman back to health, who turns out to be the princess of the vain and self-important city of Bulikia, where nobody works but live instead on the savings of past generations and on precious gemstones they occasionally find in their cellars. It gets stranger from there, and by the end we have met Adam and Eve, and Lilith, the wicked angel who was Adam's first wife, and Mara the Lady of Sorrows, and, fleetingly, The Shadow, who is of all creatures the one furthest from God's light.
In a very great measure the book is about the crucial importance of sorrow; no one can come properly to the House of Death without the help of Mara, the Lady of Sorrows, and, in general, staying a bit in her house, the House of Bitterness. Sorrow is essential to repentance; repentance is necessary for true joy; so none can have true joy without first being taught by sorrow. It is through sorrow that we learn how to let go of our ideas of ourselves and to see ourselves as we truly are; it is through sorrow that we learn how to let go the things that mar us; and it is through sorrow that we learn how to face death, not with fear, but with a recognition that it is only the next step; and it is through the sorrow of repentance that we cease to be shut up inside ourselves, which is hell, and become open to the joy of heaven. The book is also about death: dying to one's self and the world, the death of the old Adam (the death of repentance), the death of the body.
This would be a very difficult book to get through if it were not for two things: (1) the surreal, fantastic setting means that much of the book is carried by symbolism and allusion, and (2) MacDonald's universalism, which does not deny the existence of hell (because hell is to shut oneself off from true love and life and light, which is a thing we must all overcome), but nonetheless allows the possibility that even Lilith, even The Shadow, can in the end repent, means that the overall thrust of the book is optimistic. Most of the book is under the shadow of the seemingly endless evening of sorrow and death; but there is still joy within it, death is not the end, and there is a morning to come.
Then," I said, feeling naked and very worthless, "will you be so good as show me the nearest way home? There are more ways than one, I know, for I have gone by two already."
"There are indeed many ways."
"Tell me, please, how to recognise the nearest."
"I cannot," answered the raven; "you and I use the same words with different meanings. We are often unable to tell people what they NEED to know, because they WANT to know something else, and would therefore only misunderstand what we said. Home is ever so far away in the palm of your hand, and how to get there it is of no use to tell you. But you will get there; you must get there; you have to get there. Everybody who is not at home, has to go home. You thought you were at home where I found you: if that had been your home, you could not have left it. Nobody can leave home. And nobody ever was or ever will be at home without having gone there."
"Enigma treading on enigma!" I exclaimed. "I did not come here to be asked riddles."
"No; but you came, and found the riddles waiting for you! Indeed you are yourself the only riddle. What you call riddles are truths, and seem riddles because you are not true."
"Worse and worse!" I cried.
"And you MUST answer the riddles!" he continued. "They will go on asking themselves until you understand yourself. The universe is a riddle trying to get out, and you are holding your door hard against it."
Recommendation: Don't expect to understand most of it even after several readings and it is not light reading; but it is a haunting and beautiful book: recommended for those who like symbolism or fantasy or both.