by Brian James
Life Is But a Dream is an unusual, intense book that tackles the subject of truth as perception from the angle of mental illness.
Sabrina is a schizophrenic teen, checked into the Wellness Centre after events that are slowly revealed through a series of flashbacks. Using these snapshots of the recent past and Sabrina’s childhood, James sharpens the image of Sabrina-in-the-present, where she meets and becomes close to fellow patient Alec. Sabrina is convinced that there is a connection between she and Alec - that he originates from the dreams that texture her world.
…mine [dreams] aren’t like that. Mine stay around even when I’m awake. They are everywhere around me, shadows that I see out of the corner of my eyes. Sometimes they are more than shadows. […] Those dreams aren’t dreams at all but windows into other places. Those special dreams exist in the small places where two words rub up against each other.
James’ portrayal of Sabrina’s schizophrenia is definitely one of the strongest elements of this book. He seamlessly weaves Sabrina’s delusions into her narration, creating a rich and evocative voice that effectively communicates the way her mind merges the real and the unreal.
In a similar way, James clearly conveys Sabrina’s confusion and fear at the idea of separating these worlds, of tearing out the part that makes her feel special.
-But why is it so wrong for me to just perceive what I perceive? – I ask her. – Everyone’s always said I should believe in myself. Until I stopped believing what they wanted me to…
Dr Richards is trying to take away the part of me that makes me special. That is what she wants. It’s what my parents want too. But it’s not what I want. I don’t want to see things their way. […] The thought of a world that plain frightens me.
In this respect the novel highlights the power of perception, and how Sabrina defines herself by the way she sees the world. The story is largely focused on Sabrina’s internal journey, and the potentially fatal consequences of the choices she must make.
However, despite the first person narration, there is never a real sense of closeness to Sabrina. As readers, we might see through her eyes, but we are never fully in her shoes, living her experiences as intimately as the point of view might suggest.
Life Is But a Dream also subtly touches on the theme of bullying, particularly the repercussions for Sabrina, without being heavy handed with the messaging. It’s handled in a manner that feels both relevant and respectful, while drawing attention to the very real emotional impact for victims of bullying.
While this is at times a distressing book to read, given the struggle Sabrina undergoes, it's undeniably moving and thought-provoking. At least, until the resolution. This was where I felt a considerable disconnect with the story and dissatisfaction with the manner in which it was concluded.
It’s worth mentioning here that certain points (and characters) in this book are highly subjective and reader interpretations of what exactly is real and what is part of Sabrina’s schizophrenia will vary. If taken on a completely literal basis, I find the way the Sabrina is compelled to confront her illness slightly problematic and unrealistic, particularly when it comes to the role Alec plays. The emotional engagement I had felt up until this point waned. While I felt happy with the note on which Sabrina’s story ends, the manner in which it arrived there rang somewhat hollow to me, and I felt it undid some of the complicated crafting that gone into the plot previously.
Still, Life Is But a Dream is a complex, beautifully written book – with a great deal of empathy for the characters and their respective journeys.
Rated 3 out of 5 stars