Review of When She Sleeps. By Leora Krygier. New Milford, Conn., The Toby Press, 2004. 205 pp. $19.95.
In When She Sleeps, half sisters, Lucy and Mai, grow up in two different cultures, thousands of miles from one another, but connect subliminally even before meeting face to face. For those wondering how they manage this extraordinary feat, the answer is, to paraphrase the book's title, "when they sleep."
The year is 1977. Lucy is a Jewish-American 15 year old, living in Los Angeles with her parents. Mai, who is several years younger than Lucy, is Amer-Asian and lives in Ho Chi Minh City with her mother, Linh, and grandmother, Thanh.
The girls' father, Aaron, a former U.S. Army surgeon, fell in love with Linh, a linguist, during his tour of duty in Vietnam. After the war, Aaron returned to his wife and daughter in America. Mai has only the vaguest recollections of "Linh's American," which is how she has come to think of her father. But it is Aaron's very absence that has shaped the physical and inner lives of both Linh and Mai.
Although Aaron is a tangible presence in the lives of his wife Evelyn and their daughter Lucy, he is often as emotionally and psychologically distant from them as he is physically removed from Linh and Mai. He shuts himself in his study, not to work, but to retreat into his own world. This isn't lost on young Lucy who observes:
My father's study was a temple in our house, an island. It was his sanctuary, a place where he escaped my mother Evelyn, and me, for hours at a time. Like yellow police tape, his closed door meant, Do not cross, do not enter.
Just as Aaron's actual abandonment dominates the lives of Linh and Mai, his spiritual detachment blights the lives of Evelyn and Lucy.
Aaron's analogous relationship to both sets of mothers and daughters is only one example of several parallels present in When She Sleeps. Most conspicuous are the parallel narratives, for both Lucy and Mai share the telling of the story. While Lucy's narration is straightforward, if introspective and intellectually incisive, Mai's tale is comprised of her mother's memories--memories she "sees" in dreams siphoned from Linh "when she (Linh) sleeps." The dreams Mai steals from Linh are then "transported" to Lucy, a budding photographer, who turns them into photographic dreamscapes. Lucy also engages in "dream travel" to her half-sister's world.
Magical realism became very popular some years ago due, in part, to its association with such masters of the genre as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Laura Esquivel. But magical realism can be either alluring or disastrous, depending on how adroitly the author employs it. Happily, Krygier is both deft and subtle in her use of literary illusion and thus makes the idea of "dream sharing" believable.
(Krygier's premise may not be so far fetched if one accepts Jung's concept of the collective unconscious. For if, as Jung posits, we all draw from a common pool of dream imagery, why shouldn't those who are most closely related dip into one another other's slumbering psyche from time to time?)
A less obvious but very significant parallel in When She Sleeps is the relationship Aaron, a Holocaust survivor, has with his past--and his future. He lost his grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins--an entire generation of those who preceded him, save his parents--to the Nazis. He is cut off from his future, represented by Mai, when he returns to Los Angeles after the Americans evacuate Viet Nam.
Thus one war has severed him from his past, and another, from his future. These preternatural familial amputations have produced (or at least, greatly contributed to) the sense of detachment Aaron feels towards Evelyn and Lucy. On some level, and to various degrees, all the characters in this novel can be considered casualties of war.
Eventually, Mai makes her way to Los Angeles and the sisters meet. At the time, Mai is suffering from a serious case of insomnia. She believes her inability to sleep is "pay back" for the nocturnal larceny she has committed against her mother--the "stealing" of Linh's dreams. Aaron, who gave up surgery upon returning to the States after "Nam," and became a sleep specialist (yet another circumstantial parallel), tries to cure his daughter. He fails, and the eventual restoration of her sleep comes from an unexpected source.
Although it is through Aaron that the two sets of mothers and daughters are connected, he is less of a character in the book than are the women. In fact, When She Sleeps offers an astute and sensitive examination of several mother-daughter relationships--between Evelyn and Lucy, Linh and Mai, and Linh and Thanh.
Although there is little discussion of the cultural differences between the sisters, readers get of glimpse of those differences through the individual narratives each sister presents. But this is a novel that primarily plays out on an internal rather than external level. Krygier captures the inner landscapes of all of her female characters--regardless of which culture they were raised in.
In spare yet mellifluous prose, Krygier succeeds in transporting the reader to another time, another place, and even another dimension. They are worthwhile journeys, all.