Roberta Allen’s lyrical tale, The Dreaming Girl, follows one of the richest and most common of plots: Two people meet, fall in love, and either remain together or part. But there convention ends, for Allen has made her story not with subplots, characters’ backgrounds, nor even names. Instead, poetic devices of rhythm and repetition pull the reader, like a somnambulist, into the novel’s atmosphere. The prose is spare, set off in blocks of paragraphs, and there is little dialogue. The words are vivid and accurate.
In the first pages, a girl lies on a bed, looking out her window, the wind blowing her hair. But she is unaware of the window, the room. “She is out there with that sea, with that wind, with the sky that hides in the blackness.” The people who sleep at the same guesthouse, in rooms where the walls don’t reach the ceiling, “dream each other’s dreams.”
As this opening signals, nature is inseparable from the story, as is traveling, the interior world intersecting with the exterior, and the metaphor of dreaming. Yet the plot compels.
Written in an urgent present tense, the book is divided into three sections. In Part I, “the girl” and “the German” meet at a guesthouse while each is traveling solo, somewhere in a jungle-filled country near the sea, unnamed for many pages, which turns out to be Belize. When she tells him she wants to go north to see the howler monkeys, he says he wants to come too. The next day they take the bus north and their adventure begins.
Part II opens the next morning as they wake slowly, the fields and jungle surrounding them. When he pulls her on top of him, she thinks he fits perfectly inside her. The children of the family where they are staying spy on them from outside the glassless windows and the German and girl laugh. They are happy.
They explore the jungle, hear the astonishing howler monkeys, go to a bar in the village, paddle up a river. The German has “become a place” to the girl. They “do it” everywhere, and when he bathes her outside by throwing buckets of water over her, she feels like kissing the sky. They play with the children on the river—each child in love with each of them—and are like a “strange family.”
In Part III they return to the guest house and village where they met. This is the sticky part, the longest part, the part where choices must be made. These two are travelers who met by accident (assuming one believes in accidents). They could keep traveling together, or they could go their separate ways.
Allen captures with magnificent nuance the emotions and moments that go with the territory of relating. But the deeper plot unearths the girl’s relationship to life itself and to the “other living things.”
The jungle itself—the heat, the sea, the blackness, the stillness, the crawling, buzzing living things—is languid, surprising, dream-like. In describing it, repetitive words and declarative sentences act as a kind of rosary, confirming that the astonishing world is, indeed, as it is.
People are named by their physical traits, the way one recognizes characters in dreams. When eager and curious, the German becomes “the small boy” in the girl’s eyes. The loveliest child of the family where they stay is called “the beauty,” the woman staying in their place “the fat woman,” and a man who asks her to dance is “the very black man.”
Allen applies the word “dream” to a variety of states. She uses it to mean “imagine.” She uses it in place of “daydream.” She uses it to show how the mind works, how the girl conceives of the German, for her fantasies of him, and also to show how the girl relates to nature, how she distances herself, protects herself, owns herself, and moves intact through this foreign country of strange people and strange creatures. Each way it’s used insinuates itself with the other, for always the word conjures up that half-conscious, half-subconscious interior state, familiar of magicians and soothsayers, that is cousin to reality and common to us all in the dark of night.
The Dreaming Girl was first published in 2001 by Painted Leaf Press, which folded only a month later. The cover featured a girl with her eyes closed. Ellipsis Press’s new publication packages the goods it contains more genuinely: It is compact and the cover more to the point—a close, green jungle. Although called a novel, The Dreaming Girl is more accurately a novella, and a reader would do well to suspend expectations that the word “novel” imposes, and go slowly, savoring its dense beauty.