Les Lieux qu’habitent mes rêves by Felwin Sarr

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This intricate literary novel is set between Senegal, France, and Poland. While it engages with a lot of philosophical questions and explores Serer mysticism, it’s a succinct book that is simply and evocatively written. The main plot, a love story that takes a tragic turn, feels like the driving mechanism of the book, and it never feels overly dense.

The first half of the book has a slightly dreamlike quality, which is sharply undercut by the second half. Studying in France, Bouhel falls in love with Ulga, a Polish girl and visits her family in Warsaw. Her brother, Vlad, suffers from paranoia and delusions, possibly schizophrenia. He returns obsessively to Chernobyl, to a wave of poisonous radiation flooding Poland, and imagines that he is a part of a secret Brigade which is fully at war. Bouhel wants to be a writer. Staying in a monastery in Switzerland, he undergoes an existential crisis, wondering if he should stay cloistered and meditate on the world. A Christian monk suggests that it may be his real calling to live fully in the world. Meanwhile, his brother Fodé leads religious rites, poised somewhere between realities. He battles demons in his dreams and speaks in tongues.

Sarr is an exceptionally clear and expressive writer, and this is a trim and deceptively small book. He switches effortlessly between perspectives. When Bouhel and Ulga first fall in love, he describes their impressions of each other from both points of view. When the story suddenly shifts, its placid surface cracks and everything falls into place. The book is so layered that it’s tempting to read metaphors into it. Vlad’s illness as a symbol of the trauma and instability of Poland’s recent history. Bouhel imagines his relationship with Ulga as a flowering plant that has to be torn up at the roots. He wonders about how words can be personified, either in biblical or more concrete terms. Even Bouhel and Fodé stand at a kind of crossroads of post-colonial Senegal and its relationship to Europe. But ultimately, it’s a story about impossible love, about brotherhood, and coming of age in a fractured world.

Les Lieux qu’habitent mes rêvent by Felwin Sarr, Zulma
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Miriam Gordis is a bookseller and English language buyer at Albertine. She previously worked in book publishing, most recently as a literary scout. She has served as a reader for the Whiting Award for Nonfiction and the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. Originally from California, she has worked as a legal translator in Paris and as a copyeditor in Moscow. She is a lover of non-fiction, visual art, pilates, and sunshine.
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