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Tabula Rasa

The Art of Effective Dreaming

By Gillian Polack, Satalyte Publishing, 2015

A Review By Kyla Lee Ward

As Stephen King is wont to say, "… the difference between humour and horror is it stops being funny when it starts happening to you." (most recently, at the International Festival of Authors PEN Gala, October 24, 2013). In her latest novel, Gillian Polack shepherds us gently past the point where Fay's dreams stop being fantasy and become utterly terrifying.

Fay is a twenty-something public servant, living in Canberra, Australia. She is single, likes reading and used to play the flute, but all that is boring. So deadly dull she scarcely spares it a second thought. Fay has become adept at the mental discipline people call fantasising, daydreaming or pathworking, depending on how seriously they take it. And Fay is coming to realise that she must take her little trips to this nameless, medieval-style town with its looming castle very seriously indeed.

"This world is a construct. The reality is the street at night. There is a big moon overhead, not a sun. I'm not asleep and this is not real. So where were the lampposts and the pavement? Why am I running? And why is the grass growing?"

This is a book about assumptions. About reality, for starters, but also about need, duty and happiness. Is an act that would be condemned in reality acceptable in a fantasy, when after all, no one really gets hurt? How much of a person's identity resides in their environment? From such questions, a complex and intricate narrative is spun, that interrogates the whole concept of fantasy (both the literary genre and the activity) without mercy. When Fay compares her current situation unfavourably to The Lord of the Rings, the castle's chatelaine instructs her that people talking to people is how things get done in real life. Coming from someone Fay has long assumed to be a figment of her imagination, this holds a certain irony and a degree of terror.

Morris Dancers hold their own terror. If the reader does not think Morris Dancers are frightening, then she has not heard them circling an isolated cottage at night. And folk songs, like the Lyke Wake Dirge, are never so haunting as when they are taken absolutely literally. The terror arises when Fay loses control, but matures when she realises just how much she has always had, and how she has been exercising it. If Fay doesn't take some kind of a stand soon, then not just her life (her dull and boring life…) but her soul will be forfeit.

This book is gorgeously written, but again, complex. In fact, it is a good example of how you can break the rules if you know what you are doing. Dr Polack is the author of many articles and short stories, and three previously published novels. Life Through Cellophane (Eneit Press, 2009) is cast in much the same style as this: third person transparencies, omniscient flashes and the narrator's own, highly non-omniscient consciousness presented as diary entries and internal monologues. These threads are woven into a textured tapestry that, if the reader is patient, she will eventually comprehend in its entirety. Dreaming also shares the paradoxical tone of the earlier text, at once ordinary and fantastical.

In fact, Dr Polack possesses two doctorates, in Creative Writing and Medieval History, and has written on both subjects in an appropriately academic mode. But her expertise is on display in all the delicious details of Dreaming. Morris dancing and folk songs, certainly. But issues of pantiles vs thatch, continuities of herbalism and lighting a room in the absence of power are all integrated seamlessly. Because, even collapsing into a nice, comfy bed filled with brocades and broidered cushions presents Fay with the dilemma of reality vs fantasy. Actually, going to bed is especially fraught.

Rules are broken. Polarities collapse. People have nice cups of tea. Don't expect a fairy tale ending.

I suspect this book will be appreciated most by those, like myself, who have their own experience of effective dreaming to draw upon. Or those with a tolerance for riddles, or who have suffered the tyranny of migraines. Is relief vicarious when the pain really does go away? This is something we must all judge for ourselves.


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