Life is But a Dream – Brian James

Synopsis from Goodreads.
Sabrina, an artist, is diagnosed with schizophrenia, and her parents check her into the Wellness Center. There she meets Alec, who is convinced that it’s the world that’s crazy, not them. But when Alex starts to convince Sabrina that her treatment will wipe out everything that makes her creative, she worries she’ll lose hold of her dreams and herself.

“I know how to stand still even when the Earth spins faster and faster than it ever did before. The rest of them try to keep up with the rhythm until it makes them dizzy. And with dizzy eyes, they stare at me and say I’m crazy.”

I absolutely adored this book. I wasn’t so sure at first because mental illness will always be an incredibly sensitive subject for me. It seems that mental illness is a subject that can either be done really, really badly, or really, really well.
Thankfully, this book falls into the latter category.
I have to admit I’m not an expert in schizophrenia, unless a B in a psychology A-Level module makes me one nowadays. But I doubt it. So please keep that in mind when I say that this book felt like an honest and accurate portrayal of what it would be like to suffer from schizophrenia. I’d be interested to know how this portrayal holds up with someone who does have experience with it.
From the first few pages, I realised that this book wasn’t going to be for everyone. It’s full of surreal imagery, bizarre concepts portrayed as if they were every day and lots of beautiful writing. Now I normally hate beautiful writing. I know that sounds stupid because, surely, everyone should love beautiful writing, I mean… it’s beautiful, right?
But I’m not a fan of flowery prose and obscure metaphors that don’t make sense. I like my writing to be to the point and gimmick-free. When I read a book, I’m much more interested in knowing whether the author knows how to tell a story than whether they can write a pretty sentence.
I fell in love with Sabrina’s narration after I read the following paragraph:

“I exhale swirling colors that streak across the clouds like rainbows on soapy water. I reach upward with my free hand. The evening sunlight touches my skin like golden water and I feel safe- almost like heaven is falling from the sky to protect me. It should be confusing but somehow it all makes sense to me. It makes sense the way a dream makes sense. The only difference is, I’m awake.”

That’s the second paragraph, by the way. It didn’t take me long.
I feel I need to amend my thoughts of beautiful writing: I hate it when it feels fake and forced and “Hey, look what I can do!”
But through Sabrina’s eyes, I believed that she saw the sky above her changing colours with every breath.

I hate it when authors try to make mental illness a glamorous disease. When they make it out to be a beautiful yet tragic illness I always wonder whether they’ve done any research at all. What I loved about Mr James’ portrayal of schizophrenia is that even though the world that Sabrina saw was absolutely stunning and it would be tempting to stay within the safety of her dreams, with all their colours and lights, there was always that sense of danger and of unease.

“Lately, I’ve been feeling like the wires in my brain have been switched around- disconnected from where they belong. It makes everything too sharp – makes my skin tingle like little shocks made of glitter. Without the medicine, they are growing back to where they belong. Already, my dreams are coming back- little by little.”

Sabrina was an absolutely glorious character. As I glimpsed the world through her eyes, I could really sense the level of frustration she felt as she tried to articulate what she was going through. It was incredibly sad but really affective.

“When I was little, they encouraged me to use my imagination. They bought me posters of unicorns and fairies. Everything I had, from my little girl makeup to my glittery pink sneakers, was bathed in make-believe and came from a place where every girl could be a princess. I guess I never knew I was supposed to stop believing.”

My only real criticism is that I’m not entirely sure I understood what led to Sabrina being committed in the first place. I have an idea and I get the basic gist but there were a few questions I have about it. I don’t really want to go into it too much, and it’s probably just me being a bit dim, but I just thought it was a bit too vague and confused for such an important aspect of the story.

I feel like I need to talk about Alec, the love interest.
Eeeh, this kid had me having kittens all over the place. He was so destructive, and so adamant that he was right all the time. It would be easy to label him as the baddie but I didn’t really see him as that. I think he was just a teenager who didn’t really understand how dangerous his words would be to someone like Sabrina. I don’t think there was any malice behind his words. He was such an interesting character and, I’m glad to say, he really redeemed himself in the end.

And, on a completely girly point, the scenes between him and Sabrina were so, so sweet that, if I ignored all the implications and ramifications and focus purely on their relationship, it could well be one of the most beautiful and innocent YA relationships I’ve read.

But I’m not completely sure I can ignore them all, even if he did learn his lesson the hard way. The jury’s still out on Alec.
*narrows eyes*

Also, if I read one more prologue that I absolutely love, I’m going to seriously damage my reputation as Jo, The Prologue Hater.
But Sabrina got her perfect ending and that last line… yesyesyes.

Theme Tune.
I always think of Patrick Wolf when I read a beautiful and poetic book that has one foot set firmly in the surreal. There is actually a better song for this book and I was this close to choosing it but it’s the theme song I’m using for my own WIP and… well… I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I don’t like to share my Wolf.
But this one is just as suitable.

The Days by Patrick Wolf.

I had your love once
Seized my body whole
And in our first dance
I thought by chance
God had matched my soul
But time bought its travelling
Its distance and solitude
My self-damaging
I took my love
Far, far from you.

I promise, I will meet you
I will meet you
At the end of the days.

This book could be seen as a love story in the same way this song could be seen as a love song, but it can also be seen as the beginning of a journey that is difficult and there are no guarantees that everything will work out, but the heroine is hopeful and determined to give it a try.
I’m calling it both.

I received an advanced copy of this book from the publishers via Netgalley.
(Please note that quotes are taken from the ARC and may be different in the final copy :) )

2 thoughts on “Life is But a Dream – Brian James

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