Friday, March 30, 2012
Author: Brian James
Genre: YA, contemporary fiction
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends, 2012
Read for: Review, neuroscience list
Sabrina has always fascinated her friends and family with her wild imagination and vivid drawings. However, as she grows older, her friends become more interested in boys and the internet, and her parents seem to quietly disapprove of the things they used to find beautiful. Confused and frustrated, events build up inside Sabrina to an outburst and she finds herself in a hospital, where the nurses give her pills that dull her senses and she is surrounded by people that seem lost. Until she meets Alec, the first person who seems to understand her, who wants to encourage and treasure the visions she sees. However, will their dreams prove to be destructive?
Before I read this book, I only saw a few reviews for it, and they were lukewarm to negative. I began it with some trepidation -- I know that opinions vary, but in general people seem to feel the same way about most books, and I figured it would probably be mediocre for me as well. However, I was totally, completely wrong. Life is But a Dream blew me away with its beautiful detail and gutting emotion. It isn't an easy book to read, but Life is But a Dream is a powerful journey and one that brings a new empathy for individuals suffering from mental illnesses.
First, look at that cover. Do you see how the sky and flowers are beautiful, but the girl on the cover is forlorn and lying on stark ground? That is Sabrina's life at the hospital. The longer she spends there, the more medications she is given, the further the dreams that colored her life and the more isolated she feels. That is, until Alec comes to the hospital. Alec and Sabrina have an instant attraction to each other, and Sabrina loves that for the first time in months, she has a ready listener for her dreams and imaginings. Alec doesn't tell her to grow out of it, that she is crazy and needs to change. He tells her the rest of them are crazy and that she is the only person to see life clearly. He is completely transfixed by her view of the world, which I found completely endearing. So often, in adolescence especially, I think people shy away from what is different. Mental illness is completely stigmatizing in many cases. The fact that Alec saw past the fact that Sabrina was a patient in an institution and found beauty in her was moving. (I know that he is also in the mental institution -- his case is a little different. Revealing why would be a huge spoiler, however, so you're just going to have to read Life is But a Dream to find out).
As Sabrina and Alec grow closer and closer, they want to escape, and this is where the tension really enters into the story. We read Life is But a Dream through Sabrina's perspective. She tells us that her visions are beautiful, that they make her who she is, that her soul is being stolen without them. However, as the story progresses and Sabrina resists treatment, she begins to completely unravel, and the reader begins to wonder if everything the beautiful visions she is desperate not to lose are as benign as Sabrina believes them to be. There are no clear answers -- by taking the visions away, part of Sabrina's life is lost, but by letting them reign over her, she loses all control. I thought the issue of treating mental illness and whether it is disease or just difference was handled exceptionally well. I was also amazed at Brian James' ability to delve into Sabrina's mind so deftly. Often, I think we see schizophrenia as the homeless person muttering on the street or someone running down the street convinced that the government is after them. Sabrina's manifestation was very unique but absolutely convincing, and it is not until late in the story that the full story of her hospitalization is unveiled.
At times, the emotion and the uncertainty in Life is But a Dream is uncomfortable. I think mental illness is inherently a difficult subject -- we all expect our bodies to fail us at some point, but hope to be able to hang onto our minds, because that is who we are, more than the frames that carry us. However, Life is But a Dream offers a unique and powerful insight into the mind of someone with schizophrenia, and carries with it a very touching love story as well. Life is But a Dream will appeal to those interested in psychology and reading books about the "heavy issues" in YA literature.
Warnings: Language, some descriptions of heavy making out