The Dreaming Girl

By Roberta Allen


Ellipsis Press
November 2011

Reviewed by Peter Fontaine


Roberta Allen’s novel The Dreaming Girl has a timeless quality to it. There are only two main characters, “the girl” and “the German,” who encounter each other in the jungles of Belize. They meet and travel together from one anonymous village to another, and while the attentive reader will notice the occasional reference to an automobile or a flashlight or some other detail that might locate when the story takes place, it feels as if everything could just as easily have happened a century ago as this year. Even within the story itself, time is plastic and unknowable. Hours and days pass like vapor in the white space between paragraphs. Whenever the girl “dreams” (the verb that stands in for daydreaming or imagining or hallucinating or perhaps a combination of all of these actions) time slows down to the crawling of a slug, or forks off into a parallel timeline that runs concurrent to the action other characters perceive. The German goes back in time to his youth as they explore the jungle, or the youth comes forward in time to supplant the German as he takes in the sights, the sounds, and the adventure.

It’s difficult to know anything for certain about the novel while reading it. The islands of paragraphs give the whole story a rootless, floating feeling. Take for example this small passage from the third page:

In the morning when they awaken, they will pass each other without a word. Or if they talk, hello and all that, they will suddenly feel strange, as though they have been stolen or else they will feel themselves thieves without knowing what it is they have taken.

When the girl awakens she doesn’t remember anything. It is as though she is alive for the very first time. There is the sea smell of the air, the cries of the birds, the blue sky.

The novel begins in the girl’s hotel room after she has met the German in the hallway earlier in the day. We encounter the girl dreaming, though she is not yet asleep. She dreams about the ocean, the wind, her body flying or floating through it all. She also dreams about the German, their meeting in the hallway, and their future as they travel together. She eventually falls asleep and really dreams (as does the German in his own room) and we come to the two paragraphs quoted above. Nothing has actually happened in these first three pages, and yet already the narrative has established the necessary ground from which to tell the rest of the story.

The Dreaming Girl is separated into three parts. Each part concentrates on one of the three phases of the relationship between the two characters. The first part shows the girl and the German meeting, being flirtatious, and beginning to share their interior selves with one another. The second part shows them sharing their first room, doing everything together, hiking, eating, having sex, even showering and lazing on the bed semi-conscious from the sweltering humidity. The final part shows how their relationship ends.

The only other constant throughout the novel is the locale. The hotel and surrounding ruins of a coastal village starts off Part One. The girl and the German then take a bus to the country and rent a room from a poor family in Part Two. They journey deep into the jungles and rivers where they are always surrounded by the primal screaming of howler monkeys. The final part sees them travel west into the most densely populated of Belize we’ve seen thus far. The locations are characters in and of themselves, the way they frame the action between the girl and the German, as well as the way they throw them into relief. For example, the coast in the beginning is a liminal space where both the girl and the German find themselves on the threshold of perception; the girl with her dreaming, and the German with his boy’s way of seeing the world around him. They are also on the threshold of the journey they will take together and the intimacy they will share. It is at this point that one of the most significant exchanges in the novel occurs. The German recounts for the girl his experiences at some ruins:

He looks at his muddy pants. ‘As you can see, I was walking in the jungle’, he says, laughing. The moment he talks about the trip it plays like a film in his mind. He only tells her part of it, but he sees the film uncut.

The dream is safe. The German in the dream is only the way she dreams him. He will never surprise her like the German sitting here now.

These characters interact with one another through conversation, sex, and exploring the jungle together, but each harbors an interior perspective, too. The German finds the girl intimidating and out of reach when she is dreaming. Likewise, the girl feels like there are depths to the German she never has access to, and she is right. Allen’s prose expertly establishes, with economy and dreamlike lyricism, the tension between the two as well as within themselves. The girl’s dreams venture from the erotic and sensual (not only about the German, but also several men throughout the novel) to the abject: she imagines every living crawling growing thing roiling underneath the jungle’s impenetrable canopy, a seething mass at once and individually described in what is arguably the novel’s tour de force.

The Dreaming Girl recalls the high modernist novels of a century ago, both in its feel and in its subject matter. The execution, however, is contemporary, with the prose as clear as glass yet with a depth that catches the light differently each time you view it from varying angles. The dreamlike quality of the novel’s structure and its timelessness informs the characters and the vibrant imagery. All together, the book itself is like a dream, feeling familiar on its surface and in summary but shot through with strangeness and beauty in the best parts.