history, and dystopia
Would you sacrifice yourself to make William Shakespeare great or would you sacrifice William Shakespeare to save the world?
This sounds like a thought experiment, a joke, a what-if situation, historical fantasy fiction, science fiction... And it is exactly what The Heavens by Sandra Newman seems like.
A futuristic dystopian novel? Yes. A delicate, well nuanced, beautifully written love story? Yes. Science fiction time travel story? Yes! A historical novel? Yes.
Immediately after reading a couple of sentences about The Heavens, in which a contemporary woman wakes up in the Elizabethan era and meets Shakespeare, becoming a part of theatre life of the period, I bought the book. It was enough for me, Shakespeare in a novel – sold. A couple of sentences were not enough, from there on it got more complicated and very unusual. Exciting, unpredictable, unexpected, strange, and most definitely unique. It was gripping, impossible to stop reading or to figure out what was going to happen next, but at the same time very slow paced, wonderfully, almost poetically written.
Newman toys with her reader, so subtly and masterfully. You are reading a story thinking you understand what it is about. A woman in the 21st century living her confusing life in New York. Work, earning, meeting new people, friends, love, relationships. But that is not all, when she falls asleep she dreams, or better said, lives as her alternate self in 16th century London. The details of her dreams are uncanny. It’s not only a dream but a whole new life. If that wasn’t enough, it turns out that the contemporary New York setting isn’t our reality, it takes place in a dystopian reality, similar to ours but quite different. At first glance it is a world that might be the same as ours but, as it unfolds, it appears to be a world without wars and suffering. An ideal world. That ideal world slowly changes into a third dystopian world more similar to our own, and it slowly keeps changing during the novel. What is reality for Kate? Does she even have one? Is she mentally ill? As the novel progresses, one thing is clear – there is nothing ordinary going on in the novel or in Kate’s life.
Newman, guiding us through fictional stories, historical characters, dystopian ‘reality,’ leads us into a 19th century theory of history – the Great man theory. A theory that history is made and shaped by great men, leaders and heroes. Leaders are born with the traits that make them exceptional, they are intelligent, brave, they rise against the odds to conquer their adversaries, they always have a lot of worshippers and are led by divine inspiration. And indeed, Newman’s ‘heroes’ are time travellers that change not only the future but the past as well.
The most important question regarding Shakespeare in this novel undoubtedly is – what would the world be without Will in its past? A world where Thomas Wyatt was the star poet? A bleak, optimistic world and not a world accelerating to its impending doom, devastation, and the apocalypse. Sacrificing oneself for Will to become great and change history (to worse)? Or destroying him? Maybe… And maybe it is completely logical that Shakespeare couldn’t have existed in the past of a positive, cheerful world filled with perpetual peace. What is the cause and what is the effect? What was before and what was after? Was or is. Does it even matter?
The novel is beautifully written, unravels slowly, unexpectedly, sneakily, unpredictably. The revelation and the process of revealing the true story is quite exciting. This is without a doubt one of the most surprising, bizarre, refreshing novels: it is unparalleled. An experience in examination and excavation of the meaning and the logic within a text. Exploration in what is real, what was, what could have been, what will be, and who we are as individuals. More importantly, how long are we going to stay being us. When will that change? If the present and the past keep changing, until when will we be able to remember the past and what consequences does that have on us? Does it really matter what history was like? Different histories do change the future, but do they really change us as individuals? I think Newman hints that we could turn out as completely different people, because of the fact that the world was different in another alternate history, but essentially we are the same – human, imperfect, flawed, problematic, wanting and in need of power and greatness.
Considering everything, the past, the future and time travel – is it possible to save the world from the apocalypse? Does it really matter? No. Greatness and the future is not what is important, current happiness is. Maybe in a way, through her own new happiness, Kate did manage to save the world after all.
By Sandra Newman
216 pages. 2019.