Jenny Diski's memoir, Skating to Antarctica, offered a painful portrait of a childhood beset by parental abuse and abandonment. The Dream Mistress covers similar territory, but in this case, fiction in some ways proves more disturbing than real life. Mimi is a narcoleptic dressmaker, Bella a mentally unstable street person. Their lives intersect briefly when Mimi finds an unconscious Bella in a back alley and calls an ambulance. Though the two won't meet again, it soon becomes apparent as the novel switches back and forth between them that they are more closely connected than either knows.
Diski juxtaposes the understated terror of Bella's slow disintegration with the almost dreamlike detachment of Mimi's emotionally vacant life. Though it's clear from the start just how these two women are connected, the author doesn't overplay it, choosing, instead, subtle parallels in their lives--Bella entering the church as a nun with faith but without belief eerily resonates with Mimi's illicit affair that is at once passionate yet loveless. There's a great deal of graphic sex that is more disturbing than erotic, and Diski doesn't pull her punches when it comes to describing madness, homelessness, or the often brutal relations between men and women. The Dream Mistress is an undeniably intelligent novel, if a chilly one; a book that is easier to admire than to love. --Alix Wilber