Row, Row, Row Your Boat: Life is But a Dream by Brian James

Let’s all just sing together for a minute and get it out of the way, ok?

Whew. Now that we’ve gotten that out of our systems, we can talk about Brian James’ Life is But a Dream.

Sabrina is checked into the Wellness Center for schizophrenia. Her parents and doctors are concerned about her erratic behavior, delusions, and hallucinations, though Sabrina is often content living in a world set apart from reality. Her treatment of therapy and medication is effective, but it also dulls the colors that make up Sabrina’s life and artwork. When Sabrina meets Alec, who is also being treated at the Wellness Center, he convinces her that her unique perspective is beautiful, not crazy, and that she should stop taking the medication that the doctors are using to control her.

As Sabrina is swept up in a forbidden romance, she rebels against the doctors and the medication and her parents, increasingly losing her grip on what is and isn’t real. Sabrina’s world can indeed be beautiful, but it can also be confusing, disorienting, and scary. Soon, Alec discovers that Sabrina’s condition may be worse than he ever realized.

Brian James manages to convey Sabrina’s narrative in a way that feels very true, but that has its drawbacks. James’ descriptions of the world Sabrina sees are breathtakingly gorgeous and thought-provoking. He provides an insider’s perspective of schizophrenia that depicts both the creativity and the terror of the illness, getting into his character’s head nearly as convincingly as memoirs written by people who know schizophrenia firsthand.

However, the numerous lengthy descriptions packed into this extremely short novel slow down the plotting considerably, the disjointed and confusing head space of the narrator make the book similarly hard to follow from present to flashback and back again, and Sabrina’s mental illness makes her a difficult narrator to connect with emotionally. In many ways, the things that make Sabrina believable are the very same things that make Life is But a Dream a tough read.

At just over 200 pages, Life is But a Dream might be perceived as a quick and easy read, but its intensity, jumbled movement through time, and highly descriptive language make it a novel better digested at a slower pace. My extremely high expectations for this novel were not quite met, but James’ insight into the narrator’s mind makes Life is But a Dream recommendable to those with an interest in mental illness.

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