“The Dream Life Of Sukhanov” by Olga Grushin

I haven’t read anything for weeks, but I didn’t want to allow this blog to stagnate, so I decided to take my Goodreads review of a book I absolutely adore and expand it into a full post. I’m writing it from the perspective of now, but drawing on my experiences the first time I read it.

the dream life of sukhanov

My mother recommended The Dream Life Of Sukhanov to me about three years ago, but despite starting it while stuck in a tiny French airport with nothing else to do for two and a half hours, I didn’t get very far, and abandoned it. Last year, as part of an English Literature investigation into mental illness in books, I picked it up again.

I was looking for a book that I could compare with The Bell Jar as part of my critical essay for my A-Level coursework, but which wouldn’t depress me. Unfortunately, most books that deal with mental illness deal specifically with depression and are thus a miserable collection of novels unlike any other. Coming across this was a godsend.

The book centres around a man (the eponymous Sukhanov) who gave up on his dreams of being an artist and became an art critic instead, conforming to keep himself safe in Communist Russia. It takes place in 1985, and as the regime breaks down, so do the barriers in his mind which he has built between his present and the creative memories of his past, bringing with them a desire to create and to become the artist he always wanted to be. However, when the barriers crumble, so does his sanity and his grasp on the difference between reality and unreality.

It’s tricky to review this novel, because it completely shattered my worldview at the time. Even now, when I’ve read it a thousand times, written a deep exploratory essay on it, and otherwise analysed it half to death, I’m not sure I can do it justice. At the time of writing my review on Goodreads, I’d only just finished it, but I didn’t even need to get to the end to decide that I would give it five stars.

Part of the reason this book had an emotional impact on me is because it cut a little too close for comfort — yet somehow that seemed like a good thing. There were moments where I stopped and stared at a sentence, because in front of me I could see my own emotions crystallised into words on a page. It didn’t matter that my own situation was radically different from the character’s. Our emotions were the same.

At moments, I also stopped and stared because of the sheer beauty of the prose. Some of it was like a poem, free-flowing and abstract in its associations of the different senses. It painted a picture that was both astonishingly vivid and untouchably surreal, keeping it always out of reach, as though the world we were seeing could only be seen through clouded glass that locked it into symbolism. At other times, it had a sharp edge, and was full of perceptive observations that perfectly encapsulated whatever they were describing.

Does that sound like a pretentious description? It’s hard not to lapse into poetic language when trying to describe another writer’s descriptions, and it defies ordinary literary criticism.

And at still other times, I hesitated before continuing because a phrase had shattered my own perspective, bringing me to think of a feeling or an event in an entirely different way to how I had perceived it before. It gave clarity to my own thoughts, previously muddled, and allowed me to phrase things I’d never been able to put into words.

When I read this, I was struggling because injury to my hands exiled me from writing and other hobbies. Sukhanov’s longing to create art underpins the whole novel, thrumming beneath the plot at every moment. I could sympathise with that. Like, a lot. By the time I finished, I felt both inspired and overawed. On the one hand, I wanted to write. I wanted to write something beautiful that would touch people the way that book had touched me, and I wanted something that was true and expressed who I was. On the other hand, I knew I’d never be able to write anything as stunning as that novel.

However, the longing to create was more overwhelming than the awe. It’s creatively rejuvenating, whether you’re an artist, musician, writer, dancer, or perhaps anything else — it convinces you that your dreams are worth living.

Unlike many books, this doesn’t lose its appeal and its beauty after repeated readings. Instead, my analysis and examination of it allowed me to perceive even greater depth, things I’d never have noticed as a casual reader. I had the sensation of breaking new ground, which is so rare in school English Literature classes: I was writing an essay on a book that nobody else had written an essay about, and every comparison I drew was new and original.

Perhaps that’s why I found it so fun and intellectually stimulating. It was probably my favourite piece of work to complete, and I finished it loving the book even more. (Every other novel I’ve ever studied has been dead to me by the time I’ve finished — The Bell Jar, which I initially loved, dropped lower and lower in my estimation the longer I read it. Plays, on the other hand, I tend to learn to appreciate more; I’m not sure why.) And that really says something about the intensity of Olga Grushin’s writing and the stunning plot.

This book was philosophy disguised as fiction, truth pretending to be a dream. The enigmatic narrative style — the shifting dream sequences, lapses into memory, and the occasional switch from third to first person every now and again — kept me on my toes, alert and focused instead of skimming like I normally do. In some ways that made it more difficult, as a book, yet it was compelling enough that I finished my first reading of it within a day.

And of course, I immediately began recommending it to everyone I know, starting with my teachers. It’s one of the reasons I began to develop an interest in studying English at university, because I suddenly realised how much potential books have to astound me, and how much fun analysis can actually be.

So, it should come as no surprise that this gets five stars without any hesitation. It’s a stunning novel.

Rating: *****

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