The Lost History of Dreams: A Novel

Image of The Lost History of Dreams: A Novel
Release Date: 
April 9, 2019
Atria Books
Reviewed by: 

“This novel may be a ghost story with more than a tinge of the Gothic, but in the end it’s actually a story of near-obsessive love.”

Robert Highstead’s estrangement from his family began when he chose to elope with Cressida, a half-Indian seamstress. No matter that Cressida died shortly after from the beating her uncle gave her in an attempt to prevent the elopement, nor that Robert, trained as a scholar, now earns a living as a photographer of the dead.

No one knows that his beloved Cressida is still with him, only now it’s her ghost to whom he returns every night, instead of a living wife.

When Robert receives a letter from his brother, he has no idea he’ll go on a life-changing journey. “It is not an average day when a gentleman is asked by his brother to daguerreotype a deceased cousin.”

Famed poet Hugh de Bonne’s last wish is that he be buried in England, inside Ada’s Folly, the glass chapel where his wife Ada is now entombed. He leaves everything to Ada’s niece, Isabelle Lowell, with one stipulation: that Robert photograph Isabelle beside his coffin inside the Folly, as proof that his wishes have been carried out.

Reluctantly, Robert accompanies Hugh’s coffin to Weald House on the Shropshire moors, a place Hugh inhabited only briefly before leaving England. His reception isn’t the one he expects; Isabelle refuses to agree to the terms of Hugh’s will.

“He built the chapel. It’s his right. He also requested a daguerreotype of his corpse before the interment as proof—”

“But he’s been dead for over two weeks!”

He didn’t dare tell her Hugh required her presence in the daguerreotype.”

She sends Robert on his way but Robert, determined to see inside Ada’s Folly, climbs the little building. He falls, spraining an ankle, and Isabelle is forced to take him in until he recovers.

While Robert recuperates, he and Isabelle strike a bargain. She will tell him the true story of Hugh’s marriage to Ada and not the myth Hugh’s followers believe. For five nights, she will dictate and Robert will record, and then he will go on his way.

“‘Before I start my story, I want to remind you of the terms of our contract. You are not to interrupt. You are not to contradict. You are not to comment. You are only to record what I say.’ Her tone was brisk, though Robert sensed unease tingeing it.”

Robert agrees, as much out of curiosity as of hope to complete his mission. The story Isabelle tells is at odds with the facts presented to the public, so much so in fact that one of Hugh’s fans declares Isabelle an imposter, and attempts to get a court order to open Ada’s Folly to the public.

Nevertheless, Isabelle persists in telling her tale. As Robert dutifully records her story, he realizes there is a definite parallel between his life and Hugh’s.

During the five nights of Isabelle’s narration, the mystery and the contradiction of Hugh de Bonne’s life and talent and the true meaning of his last haunting work, The Lost History of Dreams, will finally be revealed. It also brings questions. Did Ada die in the Black Forest as the story goes or did she and her child survive? If so, why did Hugh spread the story they had died? What is hidden in the Folly? And who is Isabelle Lowell? Really?

“Until he confronted Isabelle, he’d be trapped in eternal winter, his mind tripping over Ada and Hugh’s story of love and Loss. To Robert’s horror, all the compassion he’d prided himself on was gone. Isabelle encompassed everyone who’d thwarted him before and since Cressida’s death.”

In uncovering the truth behind the writing of The Lost History of Dreams and Hugh de Bonne’s life, both Isabelle and Robert will exorcise their own ghosts. As an unexpected and unbidden emotion rises between them, they will free themselves and find their way into new lives.

Since The Lost History of Dreams concerns the mystery surrounding a poet, it’s only to be expected that the details—of events, people, emotions—should all contain dreamy, often surreal, and extremely descriptive phrasing. Whether Robert’s or Isabelle’s, the narrative is exactly that. The words flow in an endless stream, beautiful and lyrical.

This novel may be a ghost story with more than a tinge of the Gothic, but in the end, it’s actually a story of near-obsessive love—of lives and events running in parallel, except in Robert’s case, the end prize is actually obtained. The fact that Robert is accompanied by a ghost wife isn’t shown as a sign of madness but a sign of his love for Cressida, handed so cleverly that at first the reader doesn’t realize she’s a wraith. The twists in the story raise it from the usual, making the story more intriguing and entertaining.