Updated: Dec 26, 2020
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. This one reviews Becca C. Smith’s The Dream Diaries and it was published Feb 17 2019.
Are we morally predetermined? Becca C. Smith’s The Dream Diaries is a magical realist exploration and critique of inherited guilt, the generational repercussions of violence and the nature of human evil. The ambitious story commences with its protagonist, Mara Johnston, as a disconcerting power awakens in her that is enigmatically linked to a familial murder—one that makes Mara question her nature. This ‘gift’ enables Mara to inexplicably perceive homicides through her dreams, but only as they happen: ‘I dream about horrible, vicious crimes and a few days later they’re on the news.’ The context is a high school mystery, replete with romantic subplot, but as the story progresses the stakes climb and the narrative zeroes in on metaphysical concerns.
Over and over, Smith prompts readers to ask how someone is led to extreme cruelty, how and if they justify it to themselves and others: ‘maybe her great aunt had dreams like Mara’s and she finally acted on them’; ‘I’m related to a mom who abandoned me and a dad who beats me. We’re nothing like them’; ‘it was easier to hate him as a bully than to think it had been learned behavior’.
The answers provided to the questions Smith poses are multifaceted and open ended, not shying from judgement but careful to capture the nuances of grave misdeeds. It is a treatment of evil rooted in an appreciation of the complex tension between our suppressed, unconscious traumas (what Jung dubbed the Shadow Self) and the ability to exert freedom over circumstances. Such an ambitious theme requires good characterisation and a story that delivers on its premise.
Then my doppelgänger spoke. She told me that I was born to kill. That the purpose of my dreams was to show me the right path.
Fortunately, The Dream Diaries provides both. From the wounded outsider Adam Layton to eccentric FBI Agent Raven Piper, the story has a memorable set of key actors. The titular epistolary conceit — having each third person chapters begin with a first person journal entry—is partly a framing device, but it is also integrated into the plot, creating a seamless continuity between the two modes of narration. This also frees Smith to focus on external actions when in the third person, and to keep the pace—and suspense—strong throughout.
What is more, it allows Smith to deploy the breadth of an authorial view-from-nowhere, while affording intimate moments from the hero’s more private perspective—such as when Mara encounters her suppressed self in a dreamscape, ‘Then my doppelgänger spoke. She told me that I was born to kill. That the purpose of my dreams was to show me the right path.’ Such a versatility in the narration elevates the novel.
What most stands out about The Dream Diaries is its resistance to sentimentality without any consequent retreat into cynicism, all the while exploring facets of human nature that might tempt a lesser author to one or the other mistake. This is encapsulated beautifully by the finale, which is as tense as it is apt.
If you enjoyed my essay, subscribe to my monthly newsletter for similar pieces on writing, politics, utopia and horror.