Dreams are mysterious. Sleep can transport us to another life where we have tea with the Queen or swim across an ocean. These events—no matter how fantastical—seem real at the time because we don’t know we are dreaming.
But what if you did know you were dreaming? The researcher at the center of Chloe Krug Benjamin’s debut novel The Anatomy of Dreams is attempting to teach patients to lucid dream and thereby gain control of their dreaming as a way to cope with traumatic life experiences and subconscious conflicts.The Anatomy of Dreams follows narrator Sylvie Patterson from boarding school in northern California, where she first meets her boyfriend Gabe, to New England, and, finally, to Madison. Sylvie and Gabe’s relationship doesn’t survive high school and he disappears from her life for several years. When Gabe suddenly resurfaces before her ast year of college, Sylvie impulsively decides to leave school to join Gabe as a research assistant in the lab of Dr. Adrian Keller.
A sleep researcher at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Keller has staked his career on the therapeutic potential of lucid dreaming as a curative for victims of trauma and other causes of sleep disturbance. A disordered dream state, Keller argues, indicates unrest in a patient’s life that can threaten their mental health.
Keller’s experiments seem benign at first. But, after a young patient who is suffering the loss of his family has a dramatic response to Keller’s attempts to guide him to a lucid state, Sylvie begins to question the ethical implications and effectiveness of Keller’s research. Her suspicions are further confirmed after a former patient of Keller’s commits a shocking crime.
Sylvie begins to dig deep into the doctor’s history, raising questions about Keller’s method and theories. She’s never had as close and trusting a relationship to Keller as Gabe, and her uneasiness with the research begins to fray Gabe and Sylvie’s relationship. Sylvie’s discomfort is magnified by her tangled connection with an attractive but mysterious young couple living next door which eventually leads to a startling revelation.
Part thriller and part love story, The Anatomy of Dreams is hard to put down. It’s also terribly difficult to write about the story without giving away key plot points. The overlapping arcs of Sylvie, Gabe, and Keller play out in chapters that jump in time between the late 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century. Something that happens in one chapter is often not explained until a later chapter when, either backward or forward in time, the decision or series of leading events is revealed.
Reading The Anatomy of Dreams is little like interpreting a dream, trying to make sense of scattered images and experiences. A person’s dream is rarely as interesting to others as is it is to the dreamer, but Benjamin keeps the story moving forward by doing what we all should do when sharing our dreams: keep the pertinent parts, discard the rest.
Over the course of the novel Gabe doesn’t really become anything more than moody and mysterious, where Sylvie seems to grow and change as she wrestles with the complexities of life in her twenties. Benjamin seems to use Gabe’s stagnation and Sylvie’s transformation to demonstrate how a relationship changes over time, particularly from adolescence into young adulthood, but the characters—as a couple—never seem to gel. Keller, too, is described as a charismatic figure trying to set the world on fire with a new theory of sleep, but he rarely seems anything more than an arrogant and secretive creep with a chip on his shoulder.
Benjamin’s tale raises interesting psychological questions that flirt with science fiction and fantasy. But the novel stops just short of full explorations of or divergences into either of these themes, which makes it more of a thriller than a philosophical treatise on dreaming. The Anatomy of Dreams is rooted in reality and the real quest for answers about one of the most elusive and inexplicable of human experiences.