The Heavens by Sandra Newman
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
This ambitious and thought-provoking book is a genre-bending extravaganza. While its synopsis tells us that it is a love story, between Hungarian/Turkish/Persian Kate (or Kitty, as her mother calls her) and Bengali/Jewish Ben (whose real name is Debendranath, not Benjamin, thank you very much), that doesn't even cover a fraction of this novel. First of all, since childhood, Kate has had dreams (literally dreams in her sleep) of a life in Elizabethan England, of the year 1593 when theatres closed in London due to the plague, and a life in which she is called Emilia Lanier. As Kate's dreams as Emilia progress and she goes through a series of relationships as the mistress of various men, her waking life as Kate begins to alter and unwind, with a series of changes she fears are the butterfly effect (of chaos theory and Bradburyian time travel) and which Ben doesn't think are changes at all, other than in her mental health status. As Emilia enters the sphere of a little known poet known as Will Shakespeare, the relationship between Kate and Ben fractures. (Readers of Shakespearian literature and history may recognize the name Emilia Lanier as the purported "Dark Lady" of some of Shakespeare's sonnets (127-154). So the Emilia who Kate believes her dreaming self to be was a real person.)
The disjointed interface (especially linguistic) between Elizabethan history and a modern history in NYC around the fall of the World Trade Center towers, mirrors the fragmentation of Kate's own life and mental health. Kate is an artist who dreams of saving the world and who believes her actions have wrought disastrous changes she must put right. On a personal level she believes she has dreamt away her father, then her brother Petey, and that the world stands on the brink of an apocalypse. Her world iteratively changes when she wakes from her dreams, until she isn't even sure who her real relationships have been with. Is Ben the father of her child? Martin? José? And in this fugue of jamais vu reality, she feels violated, lost, fearful as the fabric of time starts to unravel every time she wakes. Is she schizophrenic, or slipping between alternate realities or parallel universes, past and present?
While I can't say I particularly like either Ben or Kate, I did sympathize with Kate's continual disorientation. Less dream than nightmare, some of the early passages were very unsettling as she found even her own artwork different when she would awaken. Some of the secondary characters like Oksana and Sabine are so well-rendered and their various iterations, along with those of Martin, José and Ian, as Kate awakens are fascinating character progressions. (Though the lack of a character I could feel true affection for chipped off half a star.)
This is a masterful use of dreaming, time travel, alternate reality, perception, and mental illness. A fascinating but not facile novel. It is a literary novel which may not be to every readers taste, and if you come looking for a classic sci-fi novel of time travel, a simple romance or even historical romance, you're apt to be disappointed. Come for the whole shebang. Then tell me- is Kate schizophrenic or is she time-slipping? And how do you know for sure?
I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from Grove Atlantic via Edelweiss, along with a paper review copy, in exchange for an honest review.
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