Diversity, Fiction, Historical, Illness, Magical realism, Society

A Book That Brings Some Magic Back Into The 21st Century The Heavens by Sandra Newman

It’s been a while that I’ve read a book like The Heavens – one that’s essentially a contemporary, but somehow feels so much like a fairytale. And it’s not that it’s got any fairytale stuff going on at all – perhaps it just hints at magical realism or something like that. No, it’s more in the way the story is told.

There’s this foreshadowing that begins almost with the first pages, and acts as a sort of feeling of direction, like a quest, a cursed princess feel – of the story needing to move in a certain direction, a storyline in need of unlocking. This is the kind of narrative most contemporaries lack, because admittedly, there is little in the way of magic in our plain world. But that’s not how the world feels when you’re reading The Heavens. And let me tell you, it’s a book that will make you think about the world in depth.

The Heavens by Sandra Newman

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★★★★☆ 4 stars

Only we ourselves can know our past, our existence. It might be explained to others, but it can’t be felt. Our worlds are unique to us. But this goes even farther with Kate, one of the main characters in the book. She experiences what could only be called the butterfly effect, because in her dreams, she sees the past, and she unwittingly changes her own reality. But only she can see these changes, because to everyone else, everything has always been this way. And Kate, inevitably, seems a little bit out there. She is stuck between the world and the dream, sometimes unsure of which one is real, or maybe both? Or neither? All she knows is that no one can possibly believe her, and from time to time she wonders herself if maybe she’s going crazy.

But Kate believes – rather, she knows that she has a task to perform, and that is to save the world. Because the little things she does in her dream seem to change big things in her waking life, and she thinks she could save the world from some potential calamity this way. However, she could also doom it as well. We all tend to want to think we are special, but how would you feel if you were special in this way? If you had to wonder if you’re even sane, and if you are, that you have such a huge responsibility?

The Heavens Brings The Magic Back Into The 21st Century

I found that I was simply mesmerized by the chapters set in the 21st century, as opposed to the ones set in the old England. There was just something about Kate and the community she is part of. They are both easy to imagine and quite typical seeming people, but at the same time, if you take another look, when they’re all together, they’re just so strange, so unusual. They represent a safe space in a seemingly crazy world, and this makes more and more sense towards the end of the novel. It’s strange, but I connected to that part of the story in a very personal manner – it reminded me of my own world before now, maybe of the times when I was a teen – when the world did seem much more innocent and safe. And a little slower than it is now.

This seems to be just another part of the duality of this book, and The Heavens is simply made for those. It’s the stark contrast of what it was and what it will become, and you can’t help but compare it to our own world and how you feel about your own past, quite probably.


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The Intersection Of Our Reality And Kate’s Reality

What’s interesting is that Kate passes through these realities that don’t match ours, where things that we think of as cornerstones of our culture or at least staples of everyday life just never existed in the first place (say, Shakespeare. Or… plastic.) Sooner or later you will start to see that she’s moving in the direction of the world you and me live in. So what’s interesting is that we sort of know how it “should be”, at least, according to our own timeline, so it’s so strange to see a world – or, rather, worlds, where things are different. And while Kate fidgets, trying to work out the order of things that will work out for the world, you sometimes really want to nudge her in the right direction and just tell her now it’s “supposed” to be. At the same time, it’s very interesting to ponder a world where there is no Shakespeare or plastic, but at the same time, there’s peace and community. And wonder whether our world would be better if some things just hadn’t happened in history.

The Heavens by Sandra Newman gets us to ponder what our reality might have been, if this or that small thing had never happened. Would our world be better? Or worse..? Click To Tweet

The Heavens Is Poetic

The Heavens is incredibly poetic, and not just because one of the characters in it is William Shakespeare. There’s so much feeling in this book, there’s so much of being lost and unable to find yourself. The funny thing is that while it centers on some characters, it still describes so many others in striking detail, they basically come alive on the page. I can’t help but love books with characters like that – where all the side characters matter almost just as much as the main ones.

Also… See, I didn’t even mention that bit about Shakespeare before, because it IS important, but the book is still not about Shakespeare. Hard to imagine a story where The Bard is just a side character, right? And one portrayed in a not-so-glorious light as well. But I don’t want to spoil you! Read it for yourselves.


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The Heavens Also Delves Into Mental Health And Guilt

At the start of the book, Kate is purely perceived as a little bit odd. But as the story progresses, she becomes more and more unattached to the reality of everyone else in the story, because it’s literally not her own reality anymore. Which is why she ends up being committed as mentally ill. Ben, Kate’s boyfriend, really does love her, and the problems he has with her are nothing unusuat at first, except… They’re coupled with the fact that he’s worried about her sanity, and this keeps building and building, until it becomes a full-blown mental episode for Kate – at least that’s what it looks like from his end.

So there is a lot of talk about the guilt that mentally ill people’s families feel – the guilt of thinking that maybe something might not be right with your loved ones, and feeling guilty for even thinking that in the first place. Where is the line between “it’s an odd quirk” and “something is definitely wrong”? (In this case, it’s not the kind of mental illness as depression, but rather when your mind doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not anymore.) Ben feels so threatened by it, that he doesn’t know who to blame – himself for “thinking badly of Kate”, Kate for something being wrong with her (even while he realizes it’s not her fault and it’s unfair to blame her), or just life being unfair for doing this with Kate and him. Kate’s problem, which she doesn’t even worry about all that much because to her it isn’t really her own reality, is in turn hurting Ben’s own mental health and destabilizing his world.

Not many books talk about the pain and confusion felt by family members of the mentally ill. The Heavens explores this, along with the feelings the person themselves might be going through. Both points of view are important. Click To Tweet

Books don’t often talk about things connected to mental health this way. Especially when it comes to exploring the feelings of the people close to the person who is suffering from a mental illness – more often, the feelings of the person themselves are discussed. What makes it even more interesting is that Kate isn’t really suffering a mental illness – it only looks this way from the side. But there’s no way Kate could ever prove it to everyone else. This is a way of looking at it through the lens of the mentally ill person – as I’m sure, a lot of patients are sure it’s their reality that’s real, and not the one everyone else is telling them is real. When is your reality valid and when is it not? The Heavens definitely poses interesting questions on this matter.


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Even though the book was poetic and truly mesmerizing, even though it told meaningful stories (and way more than a few), in the end I can’t tell you for sure what it was about – because I think it’s one of those books you see differently every time you read it, and the same goes for every reader. Everyone will bring their own insights from this story. It’s scifi, but it’s not about that. It’s historical, but it’s also not about that. Yeah, it’s got Shakespeare, but that’s not the point. And yeah, there’s the apocalypse as a running theme, but… You know what I’m going to say. I guess in the end, it’s about finding your own place in the world – despite the apocalypse or Shakespeare, or the fact that people think you’ve lost your mind. Maybe it’s about that. Or maybe it’s about many things, that one included. But, you know… Maybe you’ll tell me you know better, after you read it. And maybe you will be right. And that’s what’s beautiful about this book.


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But Beware Of The Triggers

Triggers include newborn death (SIDS), being institutiolized, struggling with mental health (depression, possible schizophrenia), losing jobs, losing parents, suicide in the close family, infidelity. There is also a part where September 11 is relived in some detail.

I thank Granta Books for giving me a free copy of the book in exchange to my honest opinion. Receiving the book for free does not affect my opinion.

What’s the last book you read that made you think about your own reality and your present? Have there been any that discussed problems of the close family of the mentally ill? What about books that make our reality just a little bit more magical?