Review of ‘Dreams Before the Start of Time’ by Anne Charnock

There’s a line in this gentle, rather lovely novel about an artist being able to create a whole picture with just a few details; an image that accurately reflects the entire narrative. While not an official sequel to ‘Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind’, the author’s previous brilliantly-titled take on the many levels of human creation, it does feature characters from that novel, chief among them Toni Munroe.

Toni was the teenage girl in ‘Sleeping Embers’ who lost her mother and went on a trip to China with her widowed dad. Here, she gets pregnant by accident in her early thirties, and because the novel begins three decades from now has even more choices than she would face in 2017.

The dreams of the title are those experienced by a baby before birth, regardless of whether the baby is inside a woman or an artificial womb in a lab. ‘Time’ then, is defined by experience of the outside world, which begins after birth. The title also hints at vast, even universal forces; however, these are filtered through the most intimate of human interactions, so if it’s a clone army you’re after best look elsewhere. Instead, the author uses a mosaic novel form to explore generations of the same family as they engage with different reproductive technologies, reframing each character over time as their choices are challenged by the next generation.

‘Dreams’ does not have the devastating inter-era drama of ‘Sleeping Embers’, but then Anne Charnock is too interesting an author to write the same book twice. Instead, the emotion of the story builds gradually via details like shared meals, holidays and, most of all, memories; those all-defining dreams we carry through life. You don’t have to have read ‘Sleeping Embers’ to enjoy this book, but I’d recommend that you do, simply to get a perspective that gives the quiet conclusion of the novel – in which an elderly couple go on holiday – a tension one normally associates with thrillers.

As in ‘Sleeping Embers’, the family is profoundly engaged with the redemptive power of art. Interestingly, their professions tend to be about preserving existing art rather than producing new, and it’s a telling metaphor about the preservation of identity in the face of radical technological change that so much effort is expended in this area.

Meanwhile, there are ambiguous, possibly even dark developments, not least the creation of a new social hierarchy. For example, a working-class woman gets pregnant after a one-night stand and decides to keep the child, because she knows the father started life as a hot-housed baby: gestated and screened in an artificial womb. The father himself has married ‘up the gene ladder’ to a sleek and brilliant lady who sounds sexy, but fearsome. Of the three characters, the working-class mother is the most sympathetic with her intense maternal love, lush hair and dreams of starting her own pancake business with a one-off maintenance payment.

Elsewhere, one of Toni’s descendents impulsively gifts her second son with an abundance of genetically engineered beauty and intelligence, then worries that he seems a bit ‘other’. Tellingly, the boy’s appearance is described as ‘Pre-Raphaelite’, as if he is a work of art himself. However, such is the author’s moral generosity that when we get a chapter from the boy’s point of view he seems quite normal, as he sulks in the bathroom and won’t come out. The problem, it is implied, is not with him.

There are loads of deft, subtle touches like this; they make a close reading of the text very rewarding. Indeed, this author’s work is always worth looking out for because she has a unique ability to combine linguistic and narrative precision, relevant science-fictional ideas and a trademark slow-working emotional impact that is even more overwhelming if you’re a parent.

Anne’s website

Buy ‘Dreams Before the Start of Time’


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