The Book of Dreams…
About the Book:
A beautiful, bittersweet and magical tale about the distance one man will travel for the sake of love from the internationally bestselling author of The Little Paris Bookshop
On his way to meet his son for the first time, hardened former war correspondent Henry Skinner is hit by a car after rescuing a child from drowning. He is rushed to hospital where he floats, comatose, between dreams, reliving the fairy-tales of his childhood and the secrets that made him run away in the first place.
His son, Sam, a thirteen-year old synesthete with an IQ of 144, waits at his father’s bedside. There he meets Eddie Tomlin, a woman forced to confront her love for Henri after all these years, and twelve-year old Madelyn Zeidler, another coma patient and the sole survivor of an accident that killed her family.
A heartbreakingly moving and unforgettable story about what love means – the exquisite stirrings of first love, the love between fathers and sons, friendship and family, life and death – and making peace with the past in order to find a future.
The Book of Dreams was published in Germany four years ago, but is only now being released as an English translation. In the April edition of Good Reading magazine, Nina George talks about her own experiences with the rare neurological condition of synaesthesia. After writing nearly 30 books under five different pen names, The Book of Dreams is the first time she’s written about the condition. I have to say, reading that Nina herself is a synesthete really added a layer of credibility to this novel that cemented its authenticity. All of a sudden, Samuel’s experiences of the world ceased to be only the product of research. I have always been a bit fascinated with synaesthesia, but was also slightly sceptical, simply because it’s so incredibly hard to visualise. The Book of Dreams is the first time I’ve read about the condition in such an accessible way. And as far as characters go, Samuel is pretty special, and not just because he is a synesthete.
“I can’t look another person in the eye. There’s too much there, and much of it I don’t understand. Sometimes I’m afraid that their gaze will tell me they’re about to die, which turned out to be the case with our housemaster at Colet Court and our neighbour Mrs. Logan. People with synaesthesia used to be regarded as pathological. Pathologically shy, pathologically oversensitive, a real burden on their families. Children who have it are always screaming, quick to tears, and peculiar in other ways too. When they grow up they often turn out to be borderline, complete schizophrenics, or prone to depression. Many kill themselves because they can’t cope with the world and the way they see it. Hypersensitive cry-babies. If there were any pills to treat this condition, I’d be gobbling them like Smarties.”
The Book of Dreams covers some pretty grim themes, but it does so with a sensitivity and beauty that is striking. It’s such an absorbing novel, dealing with consciousness on a whole other level. While Henri lies in a coma, Samuel is able to ‘read’ Henri, and despite their being no response that can be detected by the medical team, or even through the use of an MRI, Samuel knows that his father is still alive, that he’s in there, just waiting out of reach. While Henri is in his coma, we see his life lived out in dreams, alternate existences, and there are also times when Henri seems able to reach out to his loved ones through his, and their dreams, in a kind of alternate consciousness connection. It’s very different, and some people may not feel entirely comfortable with the themes that are played out, but I found it fascinating and inspirational. I also found it very uplifting, which may seem strange given that this is largely a novel about mortality.
“The Book of Dreams completes my cycle of novels about mortality. I needed to write about fear and transience and to portray the points where life and death meet as a sort of fairy-tale place brimming with parallel realities, a transitional zone among all worlds, heaven, and earth. None of us knows if this zone really exists or if it is born of our thoughts and hopes and fears.” – Afterword
While visiting his father at the hospital, Samuel wanders up to another floor and meets Maddie, a twelve-year-old girl who is in a vegetative state with no underlying medical cause. Something is preventing her from waking, a trauma that is so deeply seated within her. Samuel is drawn to Maddy on a number of levels and she is the first person he has encountered that he can’t read. Over time, he continues to visit her and becomes devoted to being there for her, trying to reach her so that she might break through whatever barrier is holding her captive. This is where Samuel really tugged at my heartstrings, the way in which he tried to make moments special for Maddy. It didn’t make any sense, their connection, yet it was beautiful and meaningful and showed the depths of Samuel’s character to perfection.
“I can hear her breath and then, with my soul snuggling against her heart, I hear her breath become a note. The note becomes a tune, a breeze, but it’s not like Madelyn’s piano music. This wind has been scouring the earth for a long time and is now slowly rising, growing brighter, as it continues its quest over the cool, silvery, frost-rimmed, icy coating of a long, broad, frozen river. It is changing into a warming ray of sunlight, which captures the sparkling silence and then alights on a motionless ice sculpture, inside which a heart is beating. My heart.”
This novel explores love in a very raw and jagged way. Love lost, love denied, love withheld, and love for all time. I was particularly drawn to the way in which Nina depicted the care for patients who are in a coma. It was so respectful and dignified, the nurses who work directly with these patients are marvellous. There’s a lot of information about comas woven into this novel, many things that I would never have realised. Henri’s experience was fairly tragic, and it took me a little bit to realise what was actually going on in his sections. At first, I thought we were merely getting his backstory, but then it became apparent that we were instead witnessing him living, through his dreams whilst lying in a coma, alternate existences, some in which he lives an incredible life, but others where he dies too soon. It was so bittersweet to see Henri only get to know his son through the veil of being in a coma. He’d never had the opportunity to parent Samuel, to speak to him, gaze upon him, or even touch him. He had never been able to demonstrate his love for him. That he does so from the depths of a coma is extraordinary and so very poignant.
‘Maybe this is hell. Yes, this must be hell. To live over and over again, through countless variations, repeatedly starting from scratch and committing the same mistakes and new mistakes, and then back to the start. And not to recognize any of the fresh repetitions as things that you’re experiencing for the second or fourth or thousandth time.’
And then there’s Eddie, the love of Henri’s life, if only he’d ever told her. She was terrific, especially the bond between her and Samuel, who up until this point in time, she had never known existed. But she took it in her stride, like so many things, yet never did she come across as a martyr. I adored her. Her love for Henri was something she feared, yet she gave in to it, yearning for his recovery even though it pained her to let him back into her life. The characters within this novel were all so well crafted. Marie-Force, Samuel’s mother, was a complex woman. At first, I judged her harshly for the way in which she had denied Henri and Samuel a relationship. She seemed cold and disinterested as a mother too; I was very unimpressed with her. But later on, we see another side to her, a view into her fears, a crack in her reserve that allowed us to glimpse the great love she had for Samuel. The doctors, the nurses, Samuel’s friend Scott, his brother Maxwell and his step-father Steve, even Eddie’s co-workers; not a single character was one dimensional throughout this novel, even the minor ones. Everyone was uniquely realised.
The translation of this novel is excellent. I didn’t even really think about it being a translation while reading, it was as if the author had written it in English originally. This is a thought provoking read that will stretch your imagination and tug on your heart strings. I really enjoyed it and recommend it widely, although just bear in mind that it’s a novel best suited to the open minded as it’s quite speculative about mortality and the afterlife.
“I realize at that moment that you can always decide: nothing simply happens. It’s always possible to decide whether to lie or tell the truth, whether to be an asshole or not be an asshole.”
Thanks is extended to Simon and Schuster Australia via NetGalley for providing me with a copy of The Book of Dreams for review.
About the Author:
NINA GEORGE is the author of the bestselling international phenomenon, The Little Paris Bookshop, which has been translated into more than 28 languages, The Little Breton Bistro and numerous other books that have been published around the world. She also works as a journalist and an advocate for writer and women’s rights. She lives with her husband in Berlin and Brittany, France.
The Book of Dreams
Translated Edition published by Simon and Schuster Australia on 1st April 2019
Translated by Simon Pare