VALERIE (or THE FACULTY OF DREAMS) by Sara Stridsberg
translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner
FSG, August 2019
When you read a quote unquote highbrow book, the impulse (at least for me) is usually to try to write a quote unquote highbrow review. Because there isn’t much dignity in reading an intelligent book like Valerie (published as The Faculty of Dreams in the UK) and dismissing it with pedestrian critique, but whatever, I’m going to do it anyway. I found this both boring and deeply annoying.
I can never really figure out what I want from novels which fictionalize the lives of real people. Because my impulse is to lean more toward more factual, biography-style novels (see: Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault), but then it’s almost like… why don’t I just read a biography of that person? Why am I even reading a novel if I’m so opposed to creative liberties? But I have also been known to enjoy more abstract fictionalizations (see: An Imaginary Life by David Malouf) which take a real life person and imagine, fictionalize, or dramatize details of their life, so it’s not something I’m inherently opposed to. Valerie falls into the latter category to an extreme. Sara Stridsberg in her forward admits that this is not an attempt to recreate the details of Valerie Solanas’s life; it’s more of a ‘literary fantasy’ where she loosely spins together fragments of Valerie’s life and ideologies, while deliberately skewing facts (changing Valerie’s birthplace from Ventnor to Ventor; moving it from New Jersey to a desert in Georgia). It just… didn’t work for me.
This is a book of ideas with nothing to ground them; the narrative threads are too few and far between for me to have anything to really grasp onto. I didn’t understand for the longest time why Stridsberg was bothering to disguise this fragmented, meandering, awkward novel as the story of Valerie Solanas, and while I did feel like that question was eventually answered, it was too little too late for me. I read this entire book thinking ‘I don’t care, I should probably care, why don’t I care, does the author care at all about how disengaged I am?’
But I do feel the need to remind everyone that I use the star rating system subjectively and I use my reviews to explain why I react to books in a certain way; I don’t think this is a ‘bad book’ and I would dissuade no one who’s interested in it from giving it a shot. It just did nothing for me. Though the US cover is one of the prettiest I’ve seen in a while, so there’s that.
Thank you to Netgalley and FSG for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.
You can pick up a copy of Valerie here on Book Depository.