Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Review: THE LOST HISTORY OF DREAMS by Kris Waldherr


In an early chapter of Kris Waldherr's debut novel, THE LOST HISTORY OF DREAMS (Atria, April 2019), protagonist Robert Highstead, a frustrated writer turned post-mortem daguerrotypist, can hardly contain his excitement at opening an unfamiliar book. "Books were easy, unlike people," the narrator reveals, mirroring Robert's thoughts. "Writing them, however, was another matter."

If writing this remarkable novel was difficult for Walherr, she has deftly disguised the strain. From its unique premise to its elegant language to its cleverly nested and emotionally satisfying plot, THE LOST HISTORY OF DREAMS is captivating work worthy of a seasoned novelist. Recasting Ovid's story of Orpheus and Euridyce in an eerily Gothic context, Waldherr creates a sweeping tale of love and loss, of beauty and obsession, of guilt and grief that totter to the brink of madness, and of deliverance that soars on the wings of doves.

Trapped in a tragic marriage, Robert Highstead abandons his academic career to capture images of deceased strangers. At the request of his estranged brother, he undertakes a decidedly curious task: that of returning the embalmed body of a distant cousin, the famed poet Hugh de Bonne, to the poet's estate for burial. Hugh desired to be laid to rest beside his beloved wife and muse, Ada, in the stained-glass chapel he had built years earlier to house her remains. The key to this chapel, locked since Ada's death and an object of intense interest to the cult-like fans of Hugh's poems, is in the possession of Ada's niece, Isabelle, who lives on the now-decrepit estate. A recluse who bides in perpetual mourning for her aunt, Isabelle refuses to honor Hugh's final request unless Robert agrees to record--and publish--the true story of Hugh and Ada's marriage. Desperate to complete his task, Robert agrees. Over the course of five nights, Isabelle recounts a tale that undermines the carefully constructed chimera of Hugh's poetic fictions and draws teller and listener into an explosive confrontation with truth and with each other.

The tragedy of Robert and Sida's marriage, the mystery of Isabelle's identity, the machinations of the Seekers of the Lost Dream, the validity of the love immortalized in Hugh's poems: Waldherr masterfully handles these numerous plot threads, playing with patterns and echoes and parallels until the distinctions between past and present, fact and fiction, truth and falsehood collapse. All love stories are ghost stories, she repeatedly reminds the reader, as characters struggle to free themselves from the grip of lost love and the anguish of unfulfilled promise. Words and art ultimately serve as both liberator and prison, for it is only by immersing himself in Isabelle's story that Robert can revise the course of his own.

Readers of Waldherr's novel will experience the same thrill that Robert feels when he opens Hugh's book of poems for the first time. THE LOST HISTORY OF DREAMS is not an easy book, but it is an immensely gratifying one, whose images and ideas will linger long after the cover closes.

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Kris Waldherr is the acclaimed author of Bad Princess, Doomed Queens, The Book of Goddesses, The Lost History of Dreams and other publications that celebrate story with art and words. An accomplished illustrator and visual artist, Kris is the creator of the Goddess Tarot, which has a quarter of a million copies in print. Learn more about Kris and her work at her website.

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