By Sandra Newman
The dream that summons an event, the premonition, the unsettling flicker of déjà vu — are these experiences merely cerebral short circuits, synapses firing like random pinballs through our brains, or a signal that time operates with far more capaciousness than we might dare to imagine? From “Orlando” to “Outlander,” the riddles of consciousness and time have preoccupied storytellers for centuries and now sit at the heart of Sandra Newman’s heady and elegant fourth novel, “The Heavens.”
“The Heavens” is something of a chameleon, a strange and beautiful hybrid. Just when you think you’re standing on firm footing, the ground shifts. The novel begins in a familiar register: Two New Yorkers, Kate and Ben, meet at a bougie-boho party. The year is 2000. The host, Sabine, had been planning for a dinner party, but when guests show up en masse she orders in a thousand dumplings instead. The guests all seem to intern at “a Condé Nast Publication or a television program or the U.N.” The windows are open; the night gusts in. People sit on the floor, talking. Soon Ben finds himself in Kate’s “absolute and permanent thrall.” Whimsy, ambition and desire all hang thick in the air.
Quickly, though, the picture grows more complicated. Sabine is the first to warn Ben about Kate’s idiosyncrasies: “I guess I’m saying Kate doesn’t live in the real world, and ultimately people can’t deal with it and then they end up hurting her.” Kate shares her dreams with Ben, one in which she had been “heavily pregnant and living in a plague-stricken 16th-century London. She knew she had a vital task to perform. She’d been sent there for that purpose.” As it turns out, Kate has, since she was a child, existed partially in a dream world — in her waking life, she is Kate; in her dream life, she is Emilia, who belongs to Elizabethan England. Emilia is Italian, Jewish, and believes she is destined to save the world. When Kate falls in love, and when that love is returned, the dreams intensify.
The structure of “The Heavens” permits its readers to exist as Kate does, as the story glides back and forth between New York and Emilia’s England. Chief among the novel’s many accomplishments is the fluidity of this movement. The dual worlds and perspectives are convincingly distinct and granular, coaxed to life by Newman’s self-assured prose, which manages to be at once disciplined and sensuous: “Sweet wine from Spain and gossip from France; the sun in the windows dimmed, sorrowed prettily as the day declined, until the candles’ light was mirrored in the glass. Their dabbling flames were like guesses at a feeling, the hearth’s fire like the feeling itself. It was a beautiful pastime she had missed; hours that had stepped light-footed on Emilia’s memory and passed on.” Both timelines claim their own vivid and intricate twists and turns. In New York, Ben and Kate’s relationship grows more serious and more fraught in equal measure. In England, Emilia is the mistress of a nobleman and crosses paths with a man named Will — yes, that Will — who believes himself to be on a similar world-saving mission.
Ultimately, the most potent drama rises from the way these two threads warp each other. Whenever Kate slips into the dream world, a kind of butterfly effect occurs. Always she wakes to an altered landscape, her eyes opening to find that the president is a different person or that the local co-op has never heard of custard apples or that she is mysteriously fluent in Italian. After Ben takes a publicity job at Exxon, Kate is astonished to learn that she lives in a world where people still use oil: “She would wake to find the world was changed, as if her dreams were actual visits to the past, and the things she did there altered history. There, she’d met another time traveler, a man who was a minor Elizabethan playwright. They both had visions of a future apocalypse: a burnt, empty city in a world that was dead. She’d been trying to avert that doom, but now she was certain she was making things worse.” The novel, then, is fueled by several mysteries: Are Kate’s sojourns into the past truly altering the present? Is the scorched and desolate city post-9/11 New York, or a vision of an even more profound doom? Is Kate ill or prophetic?
That last question is especially pressing for Ben, who also narrates the New York chapters. In one particularly wrenching scene, Kate speaks as though Ben’s mother, who spent “half her life in mental institutions,” is alive (in Kate’s defense, his mother, in a different version of New York, was alive). Ben — crushed, frightened and enraged — insists Kate see a doctor at once, and a quest for an explanation begins. After a battery of tests, a psychiatrist confesses “there were still many things that weren’t known about the brain.” Indeed. The medication Kate is prescribed strips her of her charisma, transforms her into a person who moves through the world “slow and stunned.” Can we find freedom from our childhood pains through the relationships we foster as adults? Or will those relationships inevitably lead us, in one way or another, back to the central wound? Both paths are, of course, equally possible, but there are moments where it can be hard to tell which one we’re on. Ben becomes plagued by the fear that Kate is merely an incarnation of his lost mother, that he is dooming himself to repeat his father’s path. This fear turns him cruel, and his and Kate’s plans for marriage founder.
Through it all, Kate’s existence as Emilia continues to thicken — until a hair-raising solution to her time-traveling existence is offered. Newman, a deft and artful plotter, allows her story lines to spiral and intersect with velocity and grace. If the final act reads as a bit slack compared with the rest of the novel, it is a testament to how energetic the narrative movement is nearly everywhere else.
In the end, there is no simple resolution to the way Kate has experienced her life. The book is, blessedly, not about offering a diagnosis or unknotting the riddle of how Kate understands time; rather it is about illuminating the riddle itself. Revelations, often thrilling ones, abound — Kate and Will might not be the only time travelers out there, for one thing — but no definitive answer is reached. This might well gall readers who read to find the resolution life so routinely denies us, but, critically, this choice allows the novel to dwell in the luminous wilderness of the unsolvable. I woke from “The Heavens” as I hope to emerge from any work of fiction: moved and unsettled, a new and intoxicating set of questions alight on the mind’s horizon.
Laura van den Berg is the author of five works of fiction, most recently the novel “The Third Hotel.” Her next book, a story collection, will be published in 2020.
By Sandra Newman
257 pp. Grove Press. $26.
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