Sandra Newman’s new novel seems at first glance to be a marketing department’s dream – star-crossed lovers! Time travel! Historical fiction! Shakespeare! – but a critic’s worst nightmare. Yet Newman, whose work is never less than original, has fashioned (to paraphrase Shakespeare himself) something rich and strange: a book that runs through many scarcely believable and yet, in any given moment, entirely plausible iterations. It is a butterfly effect where the butterfly is broken on the wheel over and over again.
The butterfly in this case is Kate. She and her lover, Ben, meet as privileged twenty-somethings at a house party held by a rich young activist one luminous New York summer night. Like the doubles and twins of which Shakespeare is so fond; they are both of (very different) mixed heritage that has given them “tawny, black-eyed, and aquiline” looks, so that they “resemble members of the same indeterminate race”.
The year is 2000 and all is right with the world, or this version of it – an ecological and political utopia “where carbon emissions had radically declined and the Jerusalem peace accords had been signed and the United Nations surpassed its millennium goals for eradicating poverty”. In a later, more polarised version of America, a country of desperation and desolation, Kate is astonished that geologist Ben works as a publicist for Exxon – that there is actually a world where people still use oil.
Kate is a fugitive from a time and place beyond 21st-century America. That night on the rooftop in New York was not, as it first seemed, absolutely perfect: the glittering heavens above, on closer inspection, appeared a facade, and Ben observed that “the actual stars were dull and few… the cosmos in fact seemed rote, like a framed print hung on a wall solely because the wall would look wrong without pictures”.
Kate enquires anxiously whether Ben remembers his dreams. Her own, which are intense and all-involving, are the central motif of the novel. In them she fully inhabits another life – that of a young woman in Elizabethan England. Emilia Lanier is Italian, Jewish, the alleged “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets, mistress of a nobleman. Newman’s inch-by-inch switch to the 16th century is tentative at first as Kate wrestles in her sleep, then totally immersive, correspondng to the emotions in her waking life as she falls deeper in love with Ben. The reader gladly moves with her each time into this vanished past, at once as solid and ephemeral as anything in the present. Here the stars are “big and friendly and simple” in the unpolluted night sky.
Emilia is heavily pregnant, at the fringes of court life. She becomes gradually aware that she has another self in a future that shrinks and alters each time she returns to it. When Kate does go back she is distracted and exhausted, yet full of “particular, sublime importance”. Emilia’s confidante is an odd little playwright called Will, who succumbs to plague that hot summer with barely a work to his name. He is a footnote in literary history in one version of the present; the genius of universal fame in another.
Will is also prophetic: like Kate/Emilia he has visions: in the flames in the fireplace they both see the “apparition of a burnt, dead world”. This apocalypse, Kate understands, will come to pass if she fails in her “vital task”, her “secret mission”. It is at this point, that the reader, and Ben, become joltingly aware that Kate’s loveable eccentricities, of which her detailed dreams are but part, might actually be the harbinger of profound mental disturbance rather than uncanny prediction.
Newman’s deeper theme of persistent delusion – the despair of those who see Kate slipping away into mania, and of Ben, whose love founders on the impossibility of caring for her – works well against a backdrop of global and local fracture. The novel ably explores humanitarianism and environmental concerns, modern ideas of family, communal living, surrogacy and loss.
Emilia and Will’s story, too, plays out with all the lavish drama and intrigue of – guess what? – a Shakespearean tragedy. Newman’s shifting landscapes are thrilling, her changing registers subtle but acute, from the clipped, cultivated language of the Elizabethan court, to the witty, wise-cracking dialogue of 21st-century New Yorkers. Her use of adverbs is unusual and apt: the sun “sorrowed prettily”, Emilia “breathed dirtily”.
With a nod to the lushness and inventiveness of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and the loneliness at the heart of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, plus plenty of timely political analogy, Newman has created a metaphorical end-of-the-world set-up as beguiling as it is bleak.
Granta, £12.99, 272pp
This article appears in the 15 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the Irish question