A Review of Sandra Newman’s “The Heavens”
Any World That I’m Welcome To
Some books are a chore to read. That’s a case in point for Sandra Newman’s fourth novel, The Heavens. This is the kind of book that would normally be in my wheelhouse — it purports to be a novel about both mental illness and time travel (!). However, I found this work very hard to get into. It might not necessarily be the author’s fault. I have to admit that for what I found wanting in this work, it is succulently written and it is very clever. The twentysomething characters at the centre of this bizarre love story — Kate and Ben — are likable enough. Still, this book really feels like two novels stuck into one, with neither of them given enough space to really truly breathe and be remarkable. This is a fairly short read, and what the book really calls out for is the epic treatment.
The setting(s) is/are quite unconventional. The book is partially set in New York City of the year 2000, but it doesn’t look like the recent past at all. There’s a female Chinese president in power, and there’s a war going on in Guatemala. Against this backdrop, Ben meets Kate at a party and immediately falls in love with her, and she likewise with Ben. However, when Kate goes to sleep, the second setting kicks in. Kate dreams that she’s a woman named Emilia living in Elizabethan England. She befriends and falls in love with a poet named William Shakespeare, who is unheard of in the New York setting of the novel. Emilia starts having visions of a city that has fallen, but when Kate — in the “real world,” if you can call it that — tries to warn people, they write off her dreamlike time travelling as mental illness and soon Kate’s life is upended by medications and hospital stays.
As you can tell, this is a daring and original book. The sections of the book set in the 1500s feel real and characters speak in a kind of poetic vernacular. Obviously, Newman has done her research into how people spoke in Old English but even the made-up bits of turn-of-the-millennium New York are inventive and astounding. Still, for some reason or another, the novel doesn’t hang together as well as it should. Part of it is because there are tons of minor characters that you have to pay attention to as they have major roles to play in the narrative. Part of it is just something I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s as though this mashup between romance, time travel and mental illness just doesn’t congeal as it should. It may just be that Newman has bitten off more than she could chew — this might have been a better novel if it stayed in the somewhat familiar world of NYC. The Elizabethan times bits didn’t really grab me. Strange characters having sex with Shakespeare didn’t really do anything for my reading enjoyment.
I think, though, that upon reflection that the main problem with this work is that there’s no thematic. It doesn’t really have anything to say about the world but to imagine that the world could become a better place if only someone could go back in time and fix things. To wit, the New York scenery starts changing once Kate/Emilia starts to go to work in the plague-ridden world of England: Al Gore, in some change that’s not really explained, suddenly becomes the President — and then, just as suddenly, George W. Bush then is. This is a world that is not stable, and while there might be a dramatic purpose behind all of this, it also makes the book hard to get into and really inhabit as a reader.
I also think that the book doesn’t really know if it wants to be serious or not. The relationship between Kate and Ben is, at first, breezy and likable before it gets bogged down with Kate’s schizophrenia diagnosis. Emilia, on the other hand, is — if I can say it without offending anybody — a bit of a whore. It’s hard to believe that the same woman is the same character, so that’s part of the reason why The Heavens seems to lack so much. It is really all over the map, and doesn’t know if it wants to be a lightweight fairy tale or something dour.
That all said, I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading this book if this seems to strike your interest and fancy. It is different, and Newman should get brownie points for turning in a book about time travel that isn’t rote or by-the-numbers. There’s enough here to satisfy the curious, even though the novel doesn’t quite come together as it should. In fact, it just ends. It’s as though Newman has painted herself into a bit of a corner, and was unsure how to bring her volume to a satisfactory conclusion. Still, even though this is a piece that you will probably read slowly — not necessarily to savour it, but to kind of make heads or tails whether or not you’re enjoying what you’re reading — I did find that things kind of picked up a little in the latter half of the book, and the novel really starts to get a sense of momentum and propulsion.
Overall, I’m not sure what to make of The Heavens. It isn’t totally unbelievable or riddled with plot holes that some works of time travel fiction offer. And the mental health angle is an unexpected and surprising one — even though it’s a bit muted and kind of gets tossed to the side towards the novel’s end. However, the book is a bit of a slog to get through. There’s nothing too exciting about the book, and you really have to be a lover of both science fiction and historical fiction to really glean any kind of breathlessness from this read. In the end, The Heavens isn’t all that heavenly and you may find yourself challenged by the work for all the wrong reasons. It took me a long time to finish, so if that tells you anything, that might be pretty much all that needs to be said.
Sandra Newman’s The Heavens was published by Grove Atlantic on February 22, 2019.
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