BookBrowse Reviews The Heavens by Sandra Newman

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The Heavens

by Sandra Newman

The Heavens by Sandra Newman X
The Heavens by Sandra Newman
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2019, 272 pages

    Nov 2019, 272 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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About this Book



Art, storytelling, dreams, and fate are all intertwined in this beautifully written novel about the choices we make and the consequences they inspire, about the self and society.

I've been a big fan of Sandra Newman's writing ever since reading her 2014 novel The Country of Ice Cream Star. I've recommended this novel – in which the rapid devolution of language serves as a marker for the decline of civilization in a post-apocalyptic society – to many people. Now I'm even more pleased to be able to recommend Newman's latest novel, The Heavens, which is just as beautifully written and thought-provoking and is also likely to attract even more readers via its somewhat more accessible style.

The Heavens begins in the year 2000 in New York City, where two young people – Ben and Kate – have just met at a sprawling party hosted by a "rich girl," Sabine, whom neither of them knows particularly well. The two of them hit it off and start a relationship, even though Sabine cryptically warns off Ben, saying "Kate doesn't live in the real world." Ben, in the way of new lovers everywhere, disregards Sabine's warning, and at first everything seems wonderful – Ben and Kate's relationship is enough to ease all the other little annoyances in his life. But soon, Ben starts to recognize, perhaps, what Sabine was talking about.

Kate had asked him on that first day they met if he remembered his dreams and what he thought of the butterfly effect – the notion that small actions may have wide-rippling repercussions. For it turns out that many nights while she sleeps – especially when she's involved in a relationship – she has a particularly vivid dream, one in which she is convinced that she is on "a secret mission, on which depended the fate of millions; as if it held the key to the salvation of the world."

Kate's dream sends her back to the year 1593, in which she is Emilia, the pregnant mistress of an influential nobleman. Each time she falls asleep and enters Emilia's existence, she is convinced she has an important role to play, that the choices she makes will somehow change the course of history – or, from Emilia's point of view, the future. And indeed, each time Kate reawakens back in the contemporary United States, she discovers that so-called reality has changed slightly – perhaps the US has invaded Guatemala, or the works of Shakespeare have never been written, or people she thought were alive are in fact dead – and everyone around her, including Ben, is entirely at home in this altered reality. Soon, as Sabine originally warned him, Ben also begins to question Kate's sanity, and at times Kate questions it herself. But meanwhile, each night she still falls asleep and dreams about the imperative to change the world.

As she so adeptly demonstrated in The Country of Ice Cream Star, Sandra Newman has a genuine sensitivity for language. She skillfully contrasts Emilia's spoken Elizabethan English with Kate's modern-day internal monologue, the two coexisting in one fascinating blend of dream and history. Newman also leaves dozens of subtle clues for readers, shifting details just slightly each time Kate reawakens, so that readers themselves are constantly wondering what is real. And, of course, the modern-day narrative that encompasses the lives of Kate, Ben, and their friends shortly after the start of the new millennium leads up to a real-life tragedy in the fall of 2001 – is this what Kate was meant to avert? Or has she been thinking about the problem the wrong way all along?

The Heavens is the kind of novel that almost demands multiple readings, and certainly merits intense discussion. Newman raises questions about the kinds of stories we tell, about the (perhaps dangerous) human tendency to cast ourselves as the heroes of the stories we inhabit, about whether the human condition is evolving for the better…or otherwise. It's also a masterful and heart-rending novel of 9/11, one that takes an entirely different approach to telling that familiar story, placing it in a seemingly unrelated historical context that nevertheless makes perfect sense.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in March 2019, and has been updated for the January 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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