Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Book review: Dreamers of the Day

Posted By on Tue, Mar 25, 2008 at 9:00 PM

click to enlarge dreamers2.jpg

Novelist Mary Doria Russell can make ingenious imaginative leaps. Her acclaimed debut novel The Sparrow blended anthropology, Catholicism and a mystery story in its account of a “first contact” between humans and an alien species. It’s a prime example of the kind of accessible science fiction novel for people who don’t think they like science fiction novels.

Russell’s lively new novel Dreamers of the Day (which she’ll be signing at the Decatur Public Library at 7:15 p.m March 26) jaunts to the past, not the future. Following The Great War and the Great Influenza, spinsterish heiress Agnes Shanklin goes on an Egyptian holiday and finds herself on the periphery of the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, and occasionally within the inner circle of the likes of Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia.

The peace conference almost literally drew the boundaries for modern-day Iraq, set the stage for the foundation of a Jewish state in Palestine and anticipates Arab and Islamist hostility to the meddlesome “West.” Dreamers of the Day combines credible sketches of Churchill and Lawrence, with an intriguing lesson of how the history influences the present (with unexpected parallels to the Middle East background passages of Actor’s Express’ When Something Wonderful Ends). Russell gives Shanklin a pleasingly naive, chatty "voice," and her efforts to escape the memory of her domineering mother provide a parallel to the Arab states' resentment of England and the West.

Russell’s creative ambitions have a tendency to over leap themselves, though. The Sparrow contained a plot twist about interspecies sexuality that alienated some readers. In Dreamers of the Day, Russell is so eager to speak to a modern audience that she contrives a way for her narrator to posthumously address the present-day reader, and the risk doesn’t pay off. Nevertheless, Dreamers of the Day is a fun and educational read, and it’ll be interesting to see which way the writer will jump next time.

Dreamers of the Day. Mary Doria Russell, Random House, $25, 253 pp.

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