For better or for worse, I have a habit of comparing books to other books. It helps me sort out my own thoughts, and it makes recommendations easier, of the “If you liked X, you’ll like Y” variety. A complex book like Skyler White’s In Dreams Begin is hard to pin down. When a comparison finally did come to me, it was this: Reading In Dreams Begin felt like finishing Robert Holdstock’s Lavondyss and A.S. Byatt’s Possession on the same day, then going to bed and having a strange, sensual dream.
Like White’s previous novel, and Falling, Fly, In Dreams Begin features two point-of-view characters. One is Laura Armstrong, a graphic artist in modern-day Portland. The other is Ida Jameson, a Victorian woman with an interest in the occult. On Laura’s wedding night, she’s spirited back to the past by one of Ida’s experiments in spiritualism, and into the body of Ida’s friend Maud Gonne. When Maud has her fateful first meeting with William Butler Yeats, it’s really Laura behind Maud’s eyes, and a passionate attraction sparks between the two. Laura is torn between her waking life with her new husband and the romantic dreams (or are they dreams?) that take her back every night to Maud’s body and Will’s love. The timelines don’t run at the same speed, though, and Laura returns each night to find months or years have passed in Will’s time.
Ida has a fascinating character arc of her own. Manipulating people and events toward her own ends, Ida could be seen as the villain of the piece. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for her, though; she sees herself as unloved, ugly, clumsy, and always second fiddle to Maud. Her role in the novel’s events turns out to be far more complicated than it appears at first glance.
Skyler White introduces each chapter with a quotation that fits the events about to transpire; some of the quotes come from Gonne’s autobiography, some from Yeats’s poetry and letters, some from other writers such as James Joyce and Dion Fortune. These quotes could, if looked at just the right way, suggest the uncanny goings-on featured in the novel. She ties her own prose in with Yeats’s poetry, too, both by using a lyrical style and by invoking images from the poems in her scenes (for example, one memorable scene echoes the “And bending down beside the glowing bars” stanza in “When You Are Old”). Skyler White’s style was already beautiful and distinctive in and Falling, Fly, but in this sophomore effort she has improved. Here is an example of In Dreams Begin’s prose:
Through the provincial streets to its tiny cemetery, Maud had walked, a priestess or a secret witch cloaked and hooded with Ida, her familiar bird, wing-in-elbow beside her. But inside Georges’ little burial chapel, Maud shrunk to an Irish crone, her ritual robes a weathered shawl wrapped over curling shoulders and the hollowed-out hole where her heart had been, and Ida, her carrion bird behind her.
In Dreams Begin explores topics such as art, beauty, fidelity, and the nature of love. It’s an intensely sensual story; readers who hate sex in their fantasy novels had best stay away, but readers willing to surrender to In Dreams Begin’s spell will be rewarded with a thought-provoking read. As in and Falling, Fly, White finishes the novel with a conclusion that will have you scratching your head, saying “Oh!” as pieces fall into place, and maybe thumbing back to earlier scenes to reread them with new knowledge in mind.
In Dreams Begin can be read as a standalone; you don’t have to have read and Falling, Fly to follow it. If you have, though, some moments will take on an extra layer of meaning.
This is one of the best, and most brain-tickling, books I’ve read this year. For a poetry geek like me, In Dreams Begin is a seductive dream indeed.