Book review: in 'The Heavens', Sandra Newman has stitched an intricate, multi-layered narrative full of twists
You might think this is going to be a tale of blossoming romance in New York – not quite, says Malcolm Forbes
Sandra Newman’s fourth novel gets under way in relatively conventional fashion. It is the summer of 2000 and a party is in full swing in a Manhattan penthouse.
Ben, a PhD student, shows up and mingles with hostess Sabine and other bright, young 20-somethings, but the main focus of his attention is artist Kate, whom he clicks with right away. Before the night is over he feels a spark, “not only of first love but of universal hope”. Several weeks later the besotted pair are walking sunny streets and contemplating a shared future as a perfect unit: “They were stars, cocooned, invulnerable.”
After this somewhat generic boy-meets-girl opening, readers could be forgiven for thinking that they are about to embark on a tale of blossoming romance in New York, one that charts the ins and outs and ups and downs of young love, as well as the optimism and aspirations of a young couple. But it soon becomes clear that Newman has a very different agenda.
She topples our expectations with a brief scene in which Kate has a dream and turns into her alter-ego, Emilia. Newman then subverts our assumptions with a longer dream sequence in which Emilia is fleshed out – not in New York on the eve of a new millennium but in England during the plague in 1593.
Emilia’s story unfolds in scattered stages via Kate’s recurring dreams. Emilia is the daughter of a courtier and the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain, and as such is well-positioned to help actors obtain patrons and dramatists royal commissions. But not all of her friends in high places are supportive when she becomes pregnant. She is cast off then married off to her needy cousin. Fortunately, a poet arrives on the scene, saves her from her “makeshift husband” and steals her affections. His name? William Shakespeare.
Back in New York, Ben and Kate’s relationship is beset by a unique set of teething problems. Every time she wakes from her increasingly vivid dreams of her second life in the past she becomes ever more disorientated in the present, forgetting people and events, and professing an aptitude for things she has never done.
For a while, earthy, grounded Ben gives fanciful, unworldly Kate the benefit of the doubt. “Kitty gets mixed up between reality and fantasy,” her father tells him. “You have to yank her out of her fairy tale,” Sabine says. But the strain gets too much when Kate remains convinced that Ben’s dead mother is alive. All too aware that “anomalies had now spawned enigmas, discrepancies, holes in the fabric of Kate”, Ben declares that she is losing the plot and asks her to seek medical help.
Once again, Newman blindsides us. Instead of straightforwardly chronicling one woman’s worsening delusions, she plays with us by constructing parallel universes which expand and contort. Just when we think we have a handle on her Big Apple or Elizabethan England, she throws in a detail that forces us to reconsider everything we have previously been told is real.
To say more would only spoil the many surprises in store: the equivalent of crudely unpicking Newman’s intricately stitched narrative. Suffice to say, this is an expertly crafted novel, full of distorting mirrors, trap doors, and rugs that are pulled from under you constantly. Being so wrong-footed so often is a joy.
And yet for The Heavens to work its wonders and not be dismissed as twisty, time-travelling nonsense, the reader is required to stay alert, surrender disbelief and second-guess Newman’s next move. Some of those may baffle and frustrate early on. For example, when Kate first closes her eyes and becomes Emilia, it is hard not to invoke author Henry James’s well-known warning: “Tell a dream, lose a reader.”
But as with Newman’s previous novel The Country of Ice Cream Star, which imagined a bleak, post-apocalyptic America and introduced a challenging narrative voice (“I bring the cure to all the Nighted States”), perseverance pays huge dividends.
The novel isn’t all authorial trickery and manipulation. At the heart of it is a tender love story between two well-drawn characters. When not involved with each other, Ben and Kate are caught up in the lives of Newman’s colourful and sometimes comic secondary characters. The antics of former Navy Seal Jose and single-parent-to-be Martin raise laughs and eyebrows, but two women steal the limelight: Sabine, who opens the doors of her apartment to left-wing activists, politicians, former prisoners and refugees; and Oksana, one of many runaway mail-order brides.
Some of Emilia’s adventures are too episodic to carry weight. Similarly, a lot of Newman’s sentences lack conviction by being demoted to parenthetical asides. But these niggles apart, this is a bold and enthralling fever-dream of a book which skilfully explores the divide between method and madness.
The Heavens by Sandra Newman is out now, published by Grove Press
Published: March 8, 2019 03:52 PM