“For he knew in each person’s image he would discover the lost history of their lives: the scars, the wrinkles, the dreams never fulfilled.”
I slipped with ease into the narrative of The Lost History of Dreams, and as page after page was turned, I realised why. Waldherr writes with the same skill as the Gothic writers before her. In her narrative I see glimpses of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Victorian novels like Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. The Gothic novel is perhaps my very favourite genre among genres, so I might be starting on a biased footing, but Waldherr’s prose has such credibility and layers that I can’t help but be swayed.
The novel follows protagonist Robert Highstead, who is a daguerreotypist (the beginnings of photography). It is an eerie profession, given that he is mostly commissioned to daguerreotype the dead. The Victorians were certainly preoccupied with death, and this process allowed them to immortalise their loved ones. Some of them would request to be daguerreotyped beside their loved one, which might sound macabre, but it certainly adds a sense of intimacy to the entire endeavour.
This puts us readers constantly in the field of death with Robert, who feels the palpable unshakable aura of its presence around him. He is forced to bear witness to loss, which exists in tandem with emotional displays of love. Robert himself is struggling to come to terms with his own dealings of loss and love, for how can you love so much and then be told you need to let go?
“It wasn’t a chapel bearing a corpse he’d traveled all this way to daguerreotype. It was a history: love, loss, and everything in between.”
Robert receives a request from his brother (with whom he shares an estranged relationship), who needs him to daguerreotype a cousin (Hugh De Bonne) he didn’t know he had, in a special chapel of sorts the chap built for his dead wife Ada. Not only that, the cousin’s heir Isabelle Lowell has to be a participant in the daguerreotype, which basically entails her standing beside the corpse. I have never been more grateful for the invention of smartphone cameras.
Isabelle and Robert experience such delicious conflict together. The best scenes in the book are when the two are present, sparring with daggered words. Their interactions float between the mystery of what was the true nature of Hugh and Ada’s relationship. Why is Isabelle so hostile whenever Hugh’s name is mentioned? How does she know details about Robert’s past?
As all these questions swirled around me, I am unable to stop myself as I wander deeper into the tale that spills from Isabelle’s lips, longing for answers. Waldherr writes that all love stories are ghost stories in disguise, for we are haunted by the things we cannot have and yearn for. After my reading of her novel, I certainly believe this to be true, for the narrative haunts me with its mystery, and as I tuck myself into bed at night, I wish for morning so I can bury myself in its depths once more. I would say that it is a book that anyone can enjoy, but it might be of particular interest to readers of poetry (since the book is littered with it) and fans of the Victorian period and history. In other words, it was the perfect book for me.
Review copy provided
A mesmerising Gothic treat that haunts you as you wander through stories within stories, till you unearth the mystery within.