How can a life be described? Most of the time, we have to look at lives from the outside: we say that someone did this, and did that, and from our partial knowledge we sketch their path through the world. Fiction, of course, can let us pretend to look at a life from the inside. Not just what happened, but how it felt; a clearer path through a sketchier world. Or, perhaps, in the case of a book like Yume No Hon, worlds.
Catherynne M. Valente's second novel—following on from The Labyrinth in 2004, and preceding at least two books in 2006—is a constellation of intensely felt tales and fragments. The most likely reality of the story is that Ayako is an old woman who has lived on the side of an old mountain in old Japan for too many years, that now her mind skips and wanders through her life and through a brace of myths, and that we get a guided tour. (The not-dissimilar freewheeling in Hal Duncan's Vellum comes to mind here, although Valente is somewhat less clodhopping, and her book ultimately feels somewhat more expansive.) It's a tour enlivened by conversations with various guides, either animals—a Goat, or a Fox—or the land itself—Mountain, River. But this most likely interpretation could very well be wrong. It could be that Ayako is not that old woman, but already a ghost, or a goddess, or the sphinx, or herself the land: any of them could be dreaming the rest. We do know that Ayako wants the dreams to be real, or wants her mundane life to be the dream (in a book like this, it amounts to the same thing). Either way, the canvas of her existence is, for Valente's purposes, stretched over a year, broken into seventy-two segments according to the Japanese calendar of the Heian period, most segments containing a different dream.
Valente writes as though from deep in the moment, in what might be called an ecstasy of telling. It can be both as magnificent and as maddening as it sounds. Her style is fluid, rich, occasionally witty, and sometimes overwrought. Sensations and images are often rendered with vivid precision (the pagoda in which Ayako lives is "red like dripping-wax," p.13), but occasionally collapse in florid excess (one of Ayako's alter egos "excretes mythos like sweat from her crystal-scaled skin," p.42). The short, sharp segments help here; they give Valente's writing focus, and give readers regular chances to catch their breath. And the occasional sticky passage is worth struggling through, because the book's use of language is also intimately connected to an ambitious use of the fantastic. Yume No Hon is one of those books in which reality is dependent on story; in which writing something makes it so. Of the metaphors seeded throughout the text, a good number are extended for a paragraph or more, vignettes within dreams. Occasionally, they grow into recurring symbols, or even enter the story as characters. There is a moth, for instance, that we first encounter when Ayoko is describing her isolation:
Desire is still present like a moth—he flits onto your hair, your thigh, your smallest toe. He sits so quietly, small and brown, intricate as leaves. And you are not truly alone, because he is there, slightly furry against your skin, breathing. (p.11)
Having been imagined into being, the moth flutters off only to reappear at other points in the story, occasionally offering advice. It eventually leaves altogether, drawn away by the rumour of a beautiful flame in the city.
Because we do not know at what level the story is being told—by Ayako the woman, dreaming the moth, or by Ayako the goddess, dreaming the woman—we cannot know how "real" it is. To try to work it out is to walk down a blind alley. One of the threads that runs through the book is that of Ayako trying to reconcile her multiplicity of identities, her many dreams, however real they each may or may not be. Eventually she realises that one by one is not enough, and that "only in groups, in clusters like cattle-stars, can they be seen for what they are" (p.50). Paradoxically, it is Ayako's isolation that leads her to this epiphany: that it is not enough to be a woman; that to find peace, she must in some sense be women; that in a sense, by dreaming them, she already is. (It is suggested that men are similarly connected, although interestingly not that people in general are.)
But this sort of introspection is another aspect of the book kept under rein by the strict structure. It is not just that Yume No Hon is divided by the signs of the changing seasons; it is also that the shape of the story is a parable. "It is my lesson," Ayako tells us. As the seasons pass, she ascends successive levels of the pagoda that is her home on the side of the mountain. Each sparks new dreams, until the last level, the fifth, is revealed to contain her dreams, trapped in painted images. Still, she doesn't understand what she dreams—has no answers—but it seems that's the point. The truth, for Ayako, is to be found in asking the right questions.
Consquently, when Ayako finds a copy of The Book of Dreams, she resists reading it, insisting that she does not need it to tell her her story. She knows her story, she says. But Valente's story is circling back on itself, inevitably; by this point the seasons are falling towards the end of the year, and we know that we too must be falling towards an ending—as the Fox tells Ayako, "if there is no end, no story has been told" (p.124). The question is what kind of ending awaits. We know from early on that particularly intense sensory experiences, such as drinking fresh milk, tie Ayako more tightly to her identity as the old woman, denying the dreams in which she is "faceless, formless and wild." We know too that to be a dreamer is to eventually wake. So when the end comes, it is with the sharp, inevitable clarity of mourning. There is no surprise—we have been led to ask the right question—just the freeing knowledge that more stories are out there, waiting. Yume No Hon is its own book of dreams. It gives us a life in stories. It is, perhaps, the only way such things can be understood.
Niall Harrison is senior reviews editor at Strange Horizons and co-editor of Vector. His reviews have also appeared in Interzone, Foundation, and The Internet Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Torque Control, and still hates writing bios.