By Brian James
Available now from Feiwel & Friends
I have read several books by Brian James, but he's never made much of an impression. While none of his books struck me as particularly memorable, I enjoyed reading them. Still, I felt some trepidation when I began LIFE IS BUT A DREAM. Mental illness is not well understood and stories are one way to spread knowledge and empathy.
It is extremely common to hear tales about how people with schizophrenia, manic depression, or other illnesses are more creative when they don't take their medication. That their medicine turns them into low-functioning zombies. It's a dangerous meme. Everyone has a right to make their own decisions about treatment as long as they aren't dangerous to themselves or others. But sometimes people avoid treatment that could help them based on nothing more than hearsay.
Sabrina seemed like a poetic dreamer when she was a child. But eventually, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Then she had to be put into a mental wellness center. She's on the mend when Alec enters her life. He convinces her that it's the world that's crazy, not them, and that they can escape together and live without drugs. It's pretty easy for Alec to say, since he's your basic rich kid for attention issues.
I loved getting lost in Sabrina's narration. It's easy for the reader, at first, to think Alec may be right. Then the things Sabrina lies to herself start coming to light and her narrative frays around the edges as she spirals down. It's pretty rough to see her regress after she stops her medication regime. Meanwhile, Alec is blithely oblivious to the damage he's causing.
But despite LIFE IS BUT A DREAM being intensely shaped by Sabrina's worldview, you can tell that Alec matures. The scene wherein he realizes Sabrina is actually schizophrenic is a brutal wake-up call. And, in the end, things do work out well. Sabrina, after all, must choose her treatment for herself. Alec's words wouldn't affect her so much if she hadn't believed she wasn't ill at the beginning of LIFE IS BUT A DREAM.
James has written an affecting and realistic portrait of schizophrenia. Even better, he created a wonderful protagonist who happens to have schizophrenia, just as she happens to fall in love and come of age.