Billed in its admiring synopsis as a “work of great virtuosity,” Thomas’ trance-like novel is more skillful than great, a poetic and ruminative examination of psychoanalysis that is both interwar daguerreotype and a harbinger of unspeakable anti-Semitism (“the landscape of hysteria,” he calls it).
Divided into three parts, the novel begins with fantasies recounted by Odessa-born opera singer (Lisa Morozova) who unleashes a torrent of eroticism in verse and diary form — a protracted séance. The narrative then follows Sigmund Freud’s analysis of the women (paraphrasing the 1903 “Dora” case study), steeped in sometimes suffocating verisimilitude, and Lisa’s response, now older, when she receives a draft of Freud’s proposed case study. The final section takes Lisa’s post-analysis life (she moves to Kiev and marries) and forces it to a historically logical, and chilling, conclusion. Thomas is steeped in Freudian poetics.
He advances therapy’s detailed repairs into wartime’s unspecific extermination, a merciless and moving juxtaposition. But Lisa’s necessary self-involvement, and Freud’s, drains spontaneity from the mid-section. At the “white hotel,” the place of Lisa’s rich fantasy, the novel is mysterious and vertiginous. Descending from those heights, the story meanders — nor is it fully redeemed by a Babi Yar anticlimax that carries “final solution” horror to a hallucinatory extreme.
The unconscious never dies, Thomas suggests. Dreams under duress die and emigrate. Lisa’s end is the mythological start of Israel. Shortcomings aside, this is brave and original magic.