With The House of Discarded Dreams, Ekaterina Sedia has written a satisfyingly complicated coming-of-age novel where "adulthood" isn't about leaving fantasy behind. In this beautiful, surreal story, a young biologist discovers that dreams are as meaningful as empirical research.
Vimbai is an undergraduate biology major in New Jersey, struggling to separate from her immigrant parents – especially her mother, a professor of Africana Studies who is obsessed with social liberation, except when it comes to her sheltered daughter. Though she's grown up steeped in her immigrant parents' Zimbwaean politics, Vimbai is more interested in studying horseshoe crabs than learning about her family's traditions. Which is why she decides to move into a dilapidated house on the beach with a group of twenty-something slackers.
Except these slackers have problems more bizarre than Facebook drama and midterms. One of them has a portal to another universe in his hair, and the other has a brood of fantastical possum-dog creatures who follow her everywhere she goes. And their phone line contains a creature who represents the congealed psychic energy of all the people who have talked on it. Just when things can't get any weirder, Vimbai's dead grandmother starts making them breakfast and the house floats out to sea.
Reading House of Discarded Dreams is like immersing yourself in a hallucination in which you occasionally dream of reality. Mournful and funny at the same time, the novel is an extraordinary departure from Sedia's previous novel, Alchemy of Stone, the story of a windup girl in a steampunk city which favored political realism over surreal domesticity. But this book, like all of Sedia's work, asks what it means to live between worlds – whether those worlds are nations, or realms of fantasy.
There's also a realistic emotional core to House of Discarded Dreams. Even as Vimbai is holding conversations with horseshoe crabs and fishing disembodied heads out of her roommate's pocket universe hair, she's still preoccupied by everyday questions – about conflicts with her mother, her chances at getting into a good graduate school, and what it means that she is nursing a crush on her female roommate.
But the longer she remains adrift at sea, the more Vimbai has to embrace the dream logic she associates with her Zimbabwean grandmother's ideas. Though she's always rejected the idea of magic, preferring biology instead, she has to accept that magical thinking is the only way she and her roommates are going to survive their ordeal at sea. And so, with a scientist's logic, she has to figure out how to navigate the dream version of Zimbabwe that has bloomed inside the house, replacing hallways with rolling hills, and bedrooms with towns.
Though many parts of Sedia's novel read like sheer whimsy, and there are plenty of silly scenes, the book as a whole has a mournful quality that reflects the story of loss that lies at its heart. At times the meandering scenes with psychic babies and talking fish stories may get frustrating for readers who are looking for a more straightforward plot. But Vimbai isn't on a straightforward path. She's navigating strange territory, psychologically and literally.
What works about House of Discarded Dreams, ultimately, is the way Sedia refuses to give this fairy tale story a fairy tale ending. Vimbai is left to reconcile – chaotically- aspects of herself that seem irreconcilable. She's forced to embrace her family history, even the parts that once felt "backward" to her. Not only does this make her stronger, but (in a refreshing twist) it gives her a more realistic perspective on science: Not all problems can be solved with empiricism.
House of Discarded Dreams is a deceptively simple story. It will pull you in with playful nonsense, then leaving you thinking about how much your sense of self is based on ever-shifting fantasies.
You can pre-order a copy of House of Discarded Dreams from Amazon. Publisher Prime Books promises it will be out November 1.