The Heavens by Sandra Newman review – brilliant time-travel fantasy | Books

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There are some writers whose prose is nothing short of electrifying: it pings and crackles off the page. Sandra Newman’s 2002 debut, The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, announced the arrival of a stylistic livewire, and was shortlisted for a Guardian first book award. Since then she has published a deliciously sly creative writing manual, How Not to Write a Novel, and been longlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction for 2014’s The Country of Ice Cream Star.

In her fourth novel, The Heavens, Newman’s sparky sensibility is given the grandest of backdrops. It’s a story set between many worlds and times, but chiefly Elizabethan England and early noughties New York. The New York strand is a recognisable if more utopian version of the “real” world – one major difference being that there is an environmentally conscious female president in office. Here, Ben and Kate meet at a party and fall in love. They start to build a relationship together – however, Kate has what you might call a very active dream life. When she goes to sleep she often wakes up in London, in 1593, as Emilia, the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Not only that, but Kate’s actions as Emilia have an effect on the whole of history, so altering her present reality. The centuries become a shifting puzzle, changing as she sleeps, and Kate finds herself unable to shake the conviction that she is here to save the world. When she meets “Sad Will” – a little-known playwright in Elizabethan England – she realises that he will be instrumental in this somehow.

It’s one heck of a pitch, and in the hands of any other writer could wind up gimmicky, but Newman’s genius lies in balancing these timelines and worlds so finely that the whole thing is seamless – not to mention lots of fun. The narrative darts around deftly and the bursts of archaic language are playful and tender. Newman takes pleasure in the imagery of 16th-century English – people are “imps” and “shrews”; physicality is visceral and unromantic. She concocts her own stunners, too, as when she describes the theatre audience for Shakespeare’s first play reacting to the trumpets of the Prologue: “Their thousand faces turned and were presented to the stage like outstretched posies.”





Shakespeare’s Globe, Southwark.



Shakespeare’s Globe, Southwark. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Newman is a sharp observer of character, and Ben and Kate’s social circle of moneyed activists and radical artists is familiar but far from cliched. Kate’s housemate Oksana may be so pretentious she “broke her own toe to see what it was like”, but she is also a “mail-order bride” about to become a surrogate mother. When the Twin Towers came up I groaned inwardly, but then Newman did something so fresh and weird with the story that the tragedy was injected with new life and meaning. I also want to mention her heartbreaking use of parentheses. Who would have thought that a writer’s use of brackets could reduce a reader to tears? They cut across the main narrative, revealing the gaps and hidden losses – as here, in the midst of a description of an otherwise starry, sweet, “bright, brave night”:

(you had fallen asleep in tears, you had cried yourself to sleep like a child) (that someone in the night could forgive you; there could still be one thing pure; you had cried yourself to sleep like a child)

An obvious comparison might be Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, and the two novels share a bittersweet resignation to loneliness as the human lot. As Kate becomes increasingly torn between her waking and dream life, her relationship with Ben is stretched to breaking point, and humankind itself seems increasingly doomed: the individual becomes universal. References to Shakespeare’s Globe run parallel to references to Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in which one woman, Sarah Connor, must escape from a psychiatric ward in order to reverse a machine-driven apocalypse that, ironically, was created by humans. All the world is reduced to one tiny stage, as a single life has the power to alter history.





Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day.



Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in
Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

Does Kate have a mental illness? Or is she really waking up in a slightly different world each time, depending on what she has done as Emilia? As Ben loses Kate to her inner landscape, the novel questions how much a person can ever have or know somebody else, even when they are in love with each other.

The Heavens is also a book about ego, legacy and loss. Emilia wants to save the world, to be significant: “a candle in the night, a bright seed of heaven”. You don’t need Shakespeare in the mix to guess that this is how Newman feels about writing, too. As such, the novel is a study of creativity – its importance and worth, but also how it separates creators from their loved ones (as when WB Yeats “hid his face amid a crowd of stars” in “When You Are Old”). If The Heavens offers any conclusions, it’s that the world may be going to hell in a handcart, but we’re in it together for the ride. How long we hang on – individually and collectively – is the ultimate, heartbreaking, bitterly dynamic question.

Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals is published by Canongate. The Heavens is published by Granta (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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