Novel not quite adult fiction, not quite YA

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December 17, 2014

The First Principles of Dreaming

By Beth Goobie

Second Story Press

265 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Julia Leggett 

The First Principles of Dreaming is veteran young-adult author Beth Goobie’s first novel length work intended for adults. Goobie delves into unsettling and challenging territory here, just as she does in her work for younger readers. A coming-of-age tale, the novel traces the awakening self-awareness of the aptly named Mary-Eve Hamilton, a teenage girl stifled within a deeply religious and damaged family. As the story progresses, Goobie persuasively lays bare the connection between personal suffering and a proclivity for religious extremism. Mary-Eve’s mother’s grief and madness manifests as Christian visions and glossolalia; her psychological anguish is harnessed to advance the power of the church, while Mary-Eve’s father, a man given to violence, hides his rage behind a pious mask.

When Mary-Eve befriends the worldly Dee, a girl who appears to be everything she’s not, a splitting takes place. Dee nicknames May-Eve Jezebel and initiates her into the world of boys, lipsticks and the backseats of cars. The structure of the novel mirrors this split, switching between first- and third-person narration. This move to third-person narration creates a sense of detachment, as though what happens to the Jezebel part of Mary-Eve is merely observed by her, rather than actually internally experienced. In a sense, the whole novel is a meditation on splitting, on how we disassociate from our pain or attempt to transcend it, and on twinning, that endless quest for our mirror image, for our other half, in a bid to make ourselves whole.

At first, Dee’s friendship seems to offer Mary-Eve a way out, but Dee’s life is not without its own darkness. Both girls have demons to vanquish before they can begin to heal. Goobie creates a nebulous world in which the spiritual, the psychological and the physical spill into each other, where apparitions become corporeal and vice-versa.

The book is an uncanny and surreal read: Goobie adeptly taps into the novelty and intensity of being a teenager where things are sensed and felt, rather than known. However, as a reader, I felt a lack of rootedness. While Dee and Mary-Eve/Jez’s relationship is well-drawn and complex, the relationships between the other characters are less tangible. The lyricism and ethereality of Goobie’s language sometimes borders on vagueness and there is a tendency for plot twists to simply happen, somewhat out of the blue.

The themes of The First Principles of Dreaming are adult in nature and yet both the novel’s scope and voice struck me as being distinctly for a YA audience. We’re always in the midst of the action, with no sense of a world beyond these teenage lives and no authoritative adult narrator to guide us forward. Like Mary-Eve herself, who seems to inhabit several planes of reality at once, The First Principles of Dreaming straddles the realms of adult and YA fiction, being not quite one and not quite the other.

Julia Leggett is a Victoria-based writer. Her debut short fiction collection, Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear, is available from Mother Tongue Publishing.

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