- By Sandra Newman
- Grove Press
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Elena Mikalsen
- January 18, 2020
A possibly delusional woman travels between circa-9/11 Manhattan and Elizabethan England in this superb, genre-bending story.
The premise and the opening of Sandra Newman’s The Heavens appear simple. Ben falls in love with Kate, who is eccentric and believes that, when she dreams, she time-travels to the 16th century and becomes a famous Elizabethan poet and musician, Emilia Lanier, an inspiration for William Shakespeare’s sonnets about the “Dark Lady.”
Ben and Kate live in the year 2000, in New York City, which appears fairly normal at first. That is, until you realize that this is an alternate reality in which there is a female Green Party U.S. president, and that world events don’t match up.
Additionally, every time Kate falls asleep and travels to the past, she interacts with various people in the 16th century, some famous, and each interaction results in exponential changes to the 20th century. Kate is trapped between the two worlds, two alternate realities that are always changing. Waiting for her worlds to make sense takes a toll, and Kate shares that “her life went nowhere.”
As Kate falls in love with Ben, her dreams grow stronger and deeper. Over time, she becomes convinced that her actions in the past change the modern world for the worse and will cause an apocalypse in the future.
What seems charming and lovable to Ben in the beginning grows burdensome and frightening over time. He is told by Kate’s family and friends that Kate had always been disconnected from reality — starting with her time at boarding school — and that she is delusional.
The novel is a fantastic representation of the alternate-reality/time-travel genre with reality changing every time Kate returns to the present. While many novels have explored “The Butterfly Effect,” the subject is not always handled with such expertise.
We follow Kate on the terrifying journey of feeling no control over the fate of the world, yet feeling responsible for its doom because her every interaction in the past causes changes in the future. When Kate wakes in the present time, her frequent and hopeless thought is, “I’m no use here at all.”
As Kate seems increasingly confused about her changing surroundings and political events, Ben is convinced of her psychosis and questions whether he wishes to stay in a relationship with her. It’s difficult to determine whether he truly loves Kate or is just fascinated by her, and whether he even could stay with her as their relationship constantly changes based on Kate’s experiences in the 16th century. Their bond is additionally challenged by Kate’s sexual encounters in the past.
The second half of the novel leads to a convincing turn of events when Kate’s friends become convinced she has developed a severe mental illness. The reader is forced to decide whether the time-travel experiences have been a delusion all along. The resolution of the story is satisfactory for the genre and will answer many questions for the reader.
There are times this novel is funny; alternatively, it’s terrifying, and there are passages that are absolutely heartbreaking. (Trigger warning: There is a rape scene in the 16th century.) The author’s language is captivating and lyrical. She paints with great skill Kate’s fluid reality of Manhattan, with its party-filled summers and snowstorm-stopped winters.
I enjoyed traveling through Kate and Ben’s world full of surrealistic characters: mail-order brides, couples who hire surrogates, “Car-Free” activists, gang members, artists, singers, a baby with parents who constantly change, and Elizabethan nobility.
Characters in this novel have odd relationships with each other, suddenly break into speaking French, move in and out of one another’s homes, take veterinary medications, and never seem to do any real work. The reader very much feels as in if Kate’s and Ben’s minds, not ever clear as to what is real and what is a delusion.
Author Newman has a strong ability to put us in the moment with her characters. As she walks us through 9/11, we see it through the eyes of Ben, who is desperately in need of comfort, yet is suddenly someone people fear because, as a Bengali, he is perceived as Muslim. His friends are terrified of him, and the woman he loves is frightened of the sight of him running through the streets.
The reader is then placed masterfully inside the complex human mind as Ben imagines being one of the hijackers and stopping the planes, yet looking forward with relief to the second tower falling because “that’s it.”
The Heavens blends elements of speculative, historical, and literary fiction with mastery. I enjoyed Newman’s humor, eccentric descriptions, and period dialogue. The most impressive aspect of the novel, however, is the author’s ability to portray the fluidity of Kate and Ben’s reality. I found myself lost in it as much as the characters were and desperate for reassurance at the end. I strongly recommend The Heavens as an intelligent and superbly entertaining read.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2019.]
Elena Mikalsen is a clinical psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio and a faculty member at Baylor College of Medicine. She blogs and publishes articles on mental health online and in print. She is also a historical fiction author. Her debut, Wrapped in the Stars, was published in 2018.