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Sandra Newman’s “The Heavens” begins like a quaint modern love story about two individuals named Kate and Ben who meet at a “rich girl’s party” in New York City in the year 2000, but it steadily turns into a highly innovative and entertaining meditation on time, psychology, memory, reality, ambition and destiny. When Kate goes to sleep she finds her mind has melded with that of Emilia Lanier, the Elizabethan-era poet, member of the minor gentry and the person some scholars speculate to be the “Dark Lady” referenced in Shakespeare’s more “bawdy” sequence of sonnets. And when Kate wakes again she finds the world around her has changed in small and large ways. She becomes convinced she must manipulate history to try to save the world and change the present for the better – even though she runs the risk of making things worse. This is such a surprising and playful tale as well as being one which asks us to seriously question our relationship to history. It’s also a totally original and beguiling time travel fantasy.

The only other book I’ve read by Newman is her previous novel “The Country of Ice Cream Star” which imagines a post-apocalyptic future run by warring tribes of children. The author seems especially adept at creatively considering how our society might radically morph due to cataclysmic events. It’s also notable how Newman consistently includes a diverse cast of characters in leading roles - from her previous novel led mainly by African American and Latino characters to this new novel where the heritage of her protagonists are mixtures of Bengali, Jewish, Hungarian, Turkish and Persian. Other than simply representing the full breadth of society, this inclusion of a range of ethnicities and nationalities deepen our consideration of how notions of history are often highly politicised. Newman’s heroines also challenge our ideas about the roles women play in shaping the past, present and future.

One of the most pleasurable things about “The Heavens” is the way Newman playfully undermines Shakespeare’s stature as the most revered figure in Western literature. She’s spoken in an interview about how she purposefully wrote this as a “disrespectful version” of Shakespeare and when he first appears in the novel he’s referred to as “Sad Will”. This isn’t to say Newman doesn’t admire Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, but it’s both challenging and refreshing to think about a version of reality where Shakespeare might have only been a footnote of history and considered a minor poet. Indeed there were probably many writers – especially female poets such as Emilia Lanier who is credited as being the first Englishwoman to assert herself as a professional poet – whose creative writing didn’t fully survive through the ages because of chance or the happenstance of not being lauded in the way Shakespeare’s work has been throughout the centuries.

In this way the innovative plot of this novel raises compelling questions about the nature of ambition. What are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of our own legacy or for the betterment of society? And what does the betterment of society even mean? One of the most fascinating characters of the novel is Sabine, the “rich girl” who throws the party at the novel’s beginning. She has a high level of insecurity in the way she gossips and manipulatively speaks about other characters. But she also has good-hearted (if questionable) munificent tendencies in how she instigates charitable causes whether it’s housing a huge variety of wayward individuals or attempting to foster a more harmonious society by purchasing an entire impoverished town. These strands of the story seem to be questioning how adept capitalism is at “solving” some of the most pressing dilemmas at the heart of our civilization.

Emilia Lanier as painted by Nicholas Hill

Emilia Lanier as painted by Nicholas Hill

I’m so impressed by the way this novel carries out multiple timelines and strands of its story which weave in and out of various potential histories. She plays upon various thematically-linked pop cultural references including ‘Terminator 2’ and she notes in an interview how the genesis of the novel began a joke where it was pitched as “Highlander set in the era of Shakespeare”. Parts of the story also felt like it was playing with ideas similar to ‘The Matrix’ in questioning what version of reality is real. I think this novel also has a similarly creative approach to Joyce Carol Oates’ recent novel ‘Hazards of Time Travel’ in considering ideas of personal responsibility and how we shape history. And even though “The Heavens” contemplates so many bigger ideas and issues, it still works as an effective and compelling love story where we follow this couple’s unusual struggle to be together. It’s a novel that I know will warrant rereading in order to pick out the subtle way its characters and settings change through subtly manipulated different versions of the present.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSandra Newman

“The Country of Ice Cream Star” is written from the point of view of a 15 year old girl whose name is taken from a Friendly’s restaurant sign and set in a dystopian future where everyone is afflicted with a disease which the narrator refers to as posies. This affliction causes them to die around the age of 20. To be presented with a civilization of children makes me wonder how influenced author Sandra Newman was by “Lord of the Flies” – especially because at one point a character named Piglet appears. Ice Cream lives with children similar to herself and they call themselves Sengles. They inhabit a rural area in what was Massachusetts by hunting, stealing and “parlaying” mostly peaceably with neighbouring tribes. She feels that she “Ain’t be the hero of my mind. Ain’t even normal made.” Yet, motivated by the illness of her beloved brother Driver, she’s drawn into a quest to find a cure for her people’s terminal disease which eventually finds her raised to a deified status in New York City which is now called C. de las Marias and run by a new sect of Christianity. She becomes an instrumental part of a war which has been raging for some eighty years and destroyed much of civilization.  

To be honest, if I hadn’t agreed to be on the shadow jury for the Baileys Prize I would have given up reading “The Country of Ice Cream Star” about 100 pages into it. But I’m so glad I stuck with it and read to the end of this long novel. This is a very challenging read that inspires and frustrates in equal measure. It’s difficult not just for the unique voice of the narrator who speaks in a new kind of lyrical dialect which Newman says in an interview with Foyles that she “developed from African-American English.” It also features numerous fast-paced battle scenes. Action like this is difficult enough to capture in more standard kinds of fiction because a certain rhythm must be achieved in the narrative to effectively convey detail alongside key events. On top of all this action is a complicated new-world order that has an intricate social structure and political make-up. There is also a large cast of characters, most of whom I found difficult to keep track of because their names are more often like nick names than traditional names. Combining all these factors meant I often felt disorientated right up until the end. I was fascinated, but confused.

What really drew me along and kept me with it, was the assured power of Ice Cream’s voice. It’s playful, poetic and impressively consistent for such a long novel. Where I think this novel shines the most are in more private moments where she becomes more contemplative. Because they die so young, it’s necessary for the children to become sexually mature as soon as they go through puberty. She chillingly remarks at one point: “Be almost old. Ain’t like to get no enfant when I be sixteen or seventeen. They never going to know me. I can die before they talking words.” The pressure to continue the race so swiftly has created a fascinatingly compressed form of passion where the dynamics of love are more intensely felt. Speaking of her most intense affair: “Ain’t words for what this be. Be something make all honor small. No life nor honesty remain, and every strangeness, every stopping pain, become bellesse. We speaking words like love, like you, that ain’t mean nothing. Words waste in air. Nor ain’t knowledge of this losten hour, is gold you cannot see. Cannot find out what it been. Yet this blind thing be more real than life.” It’s a relatable kind of feeling when language breaks down because of the heat of the emotion that’s being experienced.

Newman captures so well how there is no time for fooling with tender kisses in times of war. Coupling is feverish and necessary, but there are also feelings seeping out the sides: “Can see his face exhilarate and need. Feel how his kiss will be, and how we struggle on the floor, our knifen-fist of loving war. Yo, tears come vicious to my eyes. Be like a death somehow, be like my love itself go weep.” It’s entirely appropriate that metaphors of sex are mixed with death because in this world the two are so closely paired together. Here she perfectly encapsulates the raw reality of a teenage sensibility in a world gone mad: “We cling together with no words, until our scary silence be another nakedness. Is loving with no fight, is helpless. Every touch be words insane – and be the only truthful words I known. Be like a perfect name.”

One of the narrator's favourite salvaged food-stuffs was also one of my most-loved childhood meals

One of the narrator's favourite salvaged food-stuffs was also one of my most-loved childhood meals

Curiously, standard English as we know it is a foreign language to Ice Cream. To her: “sleeper English. Some words comprehend, but nothing weave into a sentence meaning.” She feels as alienated by the English which has survived from the past as many of us are in the act of reading this novel. I wonder if this is making a commentary on the experience of different races living within Western society who have their own dialect and often find themselves separated from mainstream culture because of this. In quite a subtly powerful way this novel is very much about race. The surviving population of America is black with a scattering of white people who are referred to as roos. One of the most fantastically realized character, the insidious Anselm who is a high-ranking apostle in C. de las Marias remarks: “There are feelings about white people here. You could call it superstition, or you might just say it’s prejudice. Anyhow, it’s been a long and thorny history.” At another point it’s stated: “‘You don’t understand how whites are regarded here,’ Pedro say in teaching voice. ‘In our Bible, they’re described as hell’s offspring, a race of giant scorpions.’” The schism of race relations in America is still very much alive even in this future when the native white population has died out. Still invaders (in this case white Russians) come to dominate the black population by tricking them into taking up arms or becoming sexually enslaved in a way which eerily mixes elements of colonial history.

Clearly, this is a novel much more sophisticated and intelligent than any book jacket summary could convey. I wonder if this is part of the reason why this novel hasn’t been more widely read. Also, the basic elements which make up “The Country of Ice Cream Star” add up to sound like any of the slew of dystopian young-adult novels that currently saturate the market. This is most definitely a literary novel with fantastic ambition. It’s assuredly led by a confident and complex narrator unlike any that has been written before. This is a character willing to travel into the darkest places of life and do what is necessary to save the brother she loves. She ominously vows “If evil can save Driver; I will love all filth.” This novel gets very grimy and uncomfortable in the realisation of what a war run by teenagers would look like. Yet it also provides revelation in Ice Cream’s subtly of feeling and her comically irreverent take on the dominant establishment.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSandra Newman
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