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Though there is much mystery here, this is not a murder mystery. We know Hugh de Bonne, self-centered and passionate poet, has died in Paris, and his body has come home to Shropshire to be interred with his long-dead beloved wife. However, the story of Hugh's life, his passionate meeting with his wife, her early death, the mysterious woman who now occupies Hugh's home, and above all, the flow of the mysterious fluid they call love is at the heart of this novel.
Dramatis personae: Hugh de Bonne, author of a volume of poems, The Lost History of Dreams, which is curiously the title of the current novel; most certainly and completely dead; self-centered and florid late (indeed) Romantic poet; his beloved and inspiration, Ada, a beautiful and delicate woman, slowly dying of TB; Robert Highstead, failed his history degree at Oxford, now working as a daguerreotypist who specializes in posing the dead for the remembrance of their relatives; his beloved, half-Indian, half-English, beautiful, rescued by Robert from a life of slave labor enforced by her violent uncle; there is something very interesting about Sida…; Robert's brother, landed, disapproves of Robert's half-caste beloved, of his failure at Oxford, and of his … rather disgusting … career; Isabelle Lowell, ageing, angry sexually alluring denizen of Ada's and Hugh's former home in Shropshire, still furnished as Hugh had furnished it; her name is the same … as that of a dead woman? As Hugh's daughter by a prostitute?
When Robert's brother John asks him to come to their dead parents' home in order to daguerreotype a corpse, Robert is not pleased. It will take him back to the place where is beloved lady, Sida, was tortured by her cruel uncle, to the place Robert's parents lived and died, to the place from which he had been estranged since he took up with Sida, and since he failed to take his degree at Oxford. This reviewer, who escapes from heavy family obligations with some facility, does not understand why, but Robert is sucked into an onerous task and sticks to it until the end of the novel, but he is, and he does.
The task is this: accompany Hugh's decaying body back to its home in Shropshire; daguerreotype the body in a private chapel made of glass and containing the body of Ada, Hugh's wife, dead of TB for many years. To accomplish this deed, Robert must meet the ghostlike caretaker of Hugh's homestead, Isabelle Lowell, reputedly Ada's niece. When Robert delivers his request to daguerreotype Hugh, Isabelle, who runs the house with a fist of iron, refuses the request. Thus Robert, with admirable perseverance and tact, begins an assault on Isabelle's refusal that lasts most of the novel. As a condition to gaining that which is refused him, Robert must participate in a kind of five Arabian Nights, in which Isabelle tells the sexually charged story of Hugh's and Ada's love and death, and the story, as well, of her, Isabelle's scrutiny (in gauze-covered, perfumed detail) of that deepening love.
But that's not really what this novel is about. When Isabelle tells the story of Ada's love for Hugh and a bedroom scene is revealed, we are forced to ask, was she hiding behind the Arras? Is she making up what she wishes had happened, or what she wishes would happen to her? Robert himself was asked to leave his study of history in Oxford when he made up what he thought Ovid's life should have been, rather than researching what it had been.
So that we will not be like Robert and fail at history, we are presented with documents, quotations, letters, legal documents which purport to back up Isabelle's, Robert's, Hugh's, and Ada's movements. But we must ask, whose history is the really real one?
And then there are the pentiminti, those shadow rough draft brushstrokes that show behind a painter's finished masterpiece: Robert loves; Hugh and Ada loved; Isabelle yearns for love; Robert carries a painting of only Sida's eye; Isabelle conceals a painting of only Ada's eye. Robert re-sees, daguerreotypes the dead, Hugh is dead, Ada is dead; the glass chapel, Ada's folly, lets in light to reveal, but it does not reveal, a secret inside. Isabelle reveals secrets whose reality we cannot test for certain. This is a novel of doublings, uncertainty, seeing, and blindness.
§ Dr. C. Downs is Professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, where she teaches American literature and is a fan, as well, of the well-turned whodunit.
Reviewed by Cathy Downs, May 2019
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