A History of Dreams by Jane Rawson [8/10]

Australian author Jane Rawson’s third novel, “A History of Dreams,” is unlike any I have read in the past few years. Set in Adelaide in the 1930s, but with the twist of a counterfactual history in the last years of the decade, the novel follows four young women into adulthood amidst that era’s chauvinism, misogyny, and toxic nationalism, all of these traits ramped up as World War II approaches and arrives. Margaret, intelligent older sister of daring Esther, together with their revolutionary friend Phyllis, become trained to be a specific cabal of witches, working with dreams, their trainer being flamboyant Communist Audrey. For the first third of the novel, we come to know the women through their spirited interactions whilst kicking against their various patriarchal families, and this section seems almost quaint, like a modern rendition of a 19th century novel, but the mood quickly darkens, turning the read into a harrowing journey. The author is remarkably adept at juggling between the various viewpoints, using techniques that feel almost experimental, but the result is a fast-deepening identification with all four wonderfully drawn characters. The setting of provincial, pre-modern Adelaide is savagely drawn, so that A History of Dreams became to me a feminist parable of times then and right now. By the time I reached the unsettled climax in the middle of the War, I was swept away and I shed a tear over the final scene. In some obscure way, I think of this outstanding novel in the same way that I do Amor Towles’ splendid The Lincoln Highway, as a multi-character adventure set in interesting times, memorable and true.

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