On Friday the neurosurgeon tells you there is no hope. Her condition is inoperable, her chances of recovery nil. A friend puts you in touch with a Catholic bishop halfway across the country, an expert on death and dying. You describe her condition. The bishop tells you that when they remove the ventilator for breathing, and if she can breathe on her own, the Church requires she be given water and feeding tubes. Then he adds, “From what you’ve told me, your wife will die within the hour once the ventilator is pulled.”
There is only kindness and sorrow in his voice.
On Monday, you follow the advice of the medical team and the bishop.
You give permission to remove the ventilator.
Within an hour, or less, she is gone. She dies because she can’t breathe.
The bishop was correct about the timing.
And you did the right thing. Everyone says so.
What no one has told you is that for the rest of your days on earth you will be visited by grief and guilt. You gave permission for them to pull that fucking ventilator. You authorized the certain death of someone you love. You will always remember her first choked breath when the ventilator was removed. Later, you think of all the things you wanted to say to her. You think of the apologies for those times you hurt her, how special she was, how she was always so supportive when you were surrounded by doubters, the laughter and adventures you shared. Before she goes away, you tell her you love her, but you doubt she can hear you.
Which brings us to Nina George’s The Book of Dreams (Crown Publishers, 2019, 389 pages, translated into English by Simon Pare).
Henri Skinner, a former war correspondent, and Madelyn Zeilder, a 12-year-old ballet prodigy, are both lying in a London hospital in a coma. After rescuing a child who fell from a boat into Thames, the exhausted Henri staggers into the street and is struck by an oncoming vehicle. Madelyn is also the victim of a traffic accident, in which her entire family was killed.
Sam, the 13-year-old son whom Henri has never met — he was on his way to a school event involving Sam when the accident occurred — begins visiting the hospital to care for his comatose father. Sam is a brilliant boy, and also a synesthete, meaning in his case he often sees human emotions as colors. Eddie Tomlin, a publisher and editor who loved Henri in the recent past and now finds herself as the person in charge of his living will, also visits Henri and soon becomes acquainted with Sam. The two of them, especially Sam, soon take upon themselves the role of unofficial guardians, friends, and even family members for Madelyn. Together they labor to save these two lives.
To say more would reveal too much of the plot and ending of this novel, which, I must confess, left me blinking back tears. Plot aside, here are just some of the strengths of The Book of Dreams.
First up are George’s descriptions of a coma — the confusion of the patient, the mingling of fantasy and reality, her medical knowledge combined with a humility that brings in the Postscript “If you notice any mistakes in my novel, rest assured that I am entirely to blame. Please write to the publisher, and we’ll try to rectify them in a future edition.” The comatose Henri, for example, often recollects his father, whose death he blames on himself; he thinks of himself as married to Eddie, when at one point he rejected her out of hand; he sees himself as together with Sam, despite never having laid eyes on him.
In addition, as she did so well in The Little Paris Bookshop, previously reviewed in The Smoky Mountain News, George addresses the themes of love, regret, missed opportunities, and unexpected connections. In Henri, Eddie, and Sam, we find searchers for love and relationships. Here, for example, is just one small piece of George’s wisdom, when Eddie ponders love: “Someone who wants to write truthfully about love would need to write a new novel about the same couple every year in order to tell the story of how their love evolves, how life comes between them, and the color their affection takes on as the days darken.”
Finally, the ghost of Nina George’s father, Wolfgang George, haunts both The Little Paris Bookshop and The Book of Dreams. In The Little Paris Bookshop, George wrote this moving dedication: “Papa, you were the only person who read everything I ever wrote from the moment I learned to write. I will miss you at all times. I see you in every ray of evening light and in every wave of every sea. You left in midsentence.”
Halfway through The Book of Dreams, I sensed the presence of Nina George’s papa. He was there in all the characters, especially in Henri. Her father’s death, I thought as I read, had caused the author great sadness and roused many questions. So, when I read George’s “Postscript” with its brief account of her father’s death in 2011 and her “haunting doubt: when death comes, will I have lived the life I might have lived?” my suspicions were confirmed.
Here is a writer who understands the horror and sorrow brought by the death of a cherished lover, friend, or family member, the turmoil and wreckage it brings to heart and soul, and the love that abides.
Thank you, Nina George.