Historical researcher Jeff Johnston is familiar with the way his employer, historical writer Thomas Broun operates. His twelfth Civil War novel, The Duty Bound, revolves around Robert E Lee – Jeff’s job is to ensure every detail is correct, from the location of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie’s temporary grave to when lee’s beloved horse Traveller was bought and died. Broun has tendency to obsess over one aspect of his work or other and, when particularly stressed, retreat to the opus he’s been working at on the side. With the publisher’s ready to run the presses, and Broun changing each new version of the galleys, Jeff’s work is harder than ever.
Broun’s current focus is on the dreams Lincoln had in the nights before his assassination – could the tragedy have been avoided had their meaning been recognised? Did they have a meaning? Fortunately, Jeff went to college with Richard Madison, who now works at the Sleep Institute and specialises in dreams. Through Richard, Jeff meets a young woman to who he is quickly attracted. Richard is an expert of dreams and related disorders; he’s also both Annie’s therapist and, possibly, her lover, a situation Jeff finds distressing on more than one level.
There are several familiar elements in *Lincoln’s Dreams – the protagonist is surrounded by dominant, single-minded characters who have clear agendas, he often has an overwhelmed and slightly jet-lagged sleep-deprivation that obstructs clear thinking, and explorations of human psychology. In this case, the psychology of dreams – less about the hidden meanings of dreams than their impact on the dreamer. Is Annie in the throes of a mental illness, or is she somehow connected with Robert E Lee, dreaming his dreams?
There’s also a lot, understandably, about the American Civil War – while I found some of this interesting, Willis also assumes a level of knowledge that I didn’t have, despite a fair enough general vague awareness of the main players and events.
She does a beautiful job of describing dreams that would now be categorised as post-traumatic stress, and these are the most vivid parts of Lincoln’s Dreams. They were also, at least for me, the sole highlight of an otherwise thin and unsatisfying novel that was part historical, part romance, part fantasy/science fiction, past psychological suspense and wholly like the curate’s egg. The setting and the central drive of the novel, the source of and reason for Annie’s dreams, were not that interesting to me; combined with the then more inexperienced author’s less honed skills, I found this fairly early work far less interesting than Willis’s more recent novels. I have Blackout, the first in a new duology set in the same Oxfordian time travelling universe as The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, sitting in my To Be Read pile (which is growing only slowly, as opposed to my ever-expanding To Be Read list). I have high hopes, but will wait until the memory of Lincoln’s Dreams fades a little. - Alex