The Heavens – Sandra Newman

When I first heard about The Heavens, a story about love, alternative universes and time travel – I was very intrigued! At heart it is in many ways about the romance between Kate and Ben, who meet right at the beginning of the novel, at a party at the turn of the millennium. They form an immediate connection, and we watch their growing relationship – in a 2000 that looks slightly different than the real world remembers it. In this 2000, it is the first year without a war anywhere in the entire world, New York seems even more culturally diverse than in reality, and the president, Chen, is female and the leader of the Green Party.

From here, the rest of the plot doesn’t follow a firm line, as the time travelling element takes hold. Whenever Kate falls asleep, she enters into an alternative universe, in 1593 London. In this world, Kate embodies Emilia, a young woman who is fleeing the plague ridden streets of London and navigating the precarious place a woman holds in Elizabethan society. Emilia is based on a real person, Emilia Bassano, who was thought to be William’s Shakepeare’s muse for his sonnets – he also appears in this story as little-known playwright Will. Throughout the novel we, like Kate, have one foot in each world, but the narratives become fluid and intermingled, as decisions that Kate makes (as Emilia) in 1593 shift the reality of 2000 New York.

One of the most striking things for me about the novel, was the way this shifting reality calls our own current state of reality sharply into question. Why, Kate questions, are there so many homeless people, when others are so rich? If people can vote, why would we vote to give all policemen guns? In between readings, the book also pervaded into my everyday reality – draping a strange, trance-like veil over our own political climate, absurd things I heard on the news on the way to work in the car felt like they belonged to an unreal reality.

Although I found the novel to be quite clever in this sense, it meant it required quite a bit more attentive and careful reading than I was anticipating. The format meant I struggled to find the narratives and keep momentum, and because Kate and Ben’s reality took on such chameleonlike, shifting qualities, I found it difficult to build a strong connection with the central characters. In that sense, though, I experienced Kate and Ben’s lives and their relationship exactly as they do. Also, the theme of mental health and madness bubbles underneath Kate and Ben’s romance, and from this perspective I did feel invested in their relationship and happiness.

Overall The Heavens felt to me to be an ambitious, astute and inventive novel. It perhaps wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it is an intriguing concept and has left me thinking!

The Heavens by Sandra Newman is out now with Granta. Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.

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