Roberta Allen’s The Dreaming Girl takes us into the jungle of Belize, where we follow the love affair of two foreigners: a 21-year-old American woman, “the girl,” and a German man, whom we know only as “the German.” The story will be familiar to anyone who has traveled abroad: girl meets guy in a hostel and a heady romance ensues, intensified by the lush, exotic surroundings. They travel together, bonding over bumpy bus rides, cramped lodging, and their unfamiliarity with local customs. Then, just as quickly as it began, it ends.
Originally published in 2000, The Dreaming Girl was re-published last year with a short introduction by the Argentine writer Luisa Valenzuela. This is the fourth work of fiction by Allen, who is also an accomplished visual artist. Her photographs, drawings, digital prints, and other art work have been shown around the world, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
While the story may be predictable, it’s thrilling to venture into rural Belize through Allen’s artistic eye. Even when the landscape isn’t beautiful, Allen’s descriptions are wonderfully spare and vivid: “The bus let them off. They look around. This is the center of the village: a couple of bars, two or three stores. Up the road are green fields on either side and barbed-wire fences. There are fruit trees. There are little farm houses scattered over the fields. The houses shimmer in the heat. The sky is large.”
Her masterful description of the jungle evokes a series of photographs in its visual precision. Here’s an excerpt: “She sees an ant queen tear, bite, and rub off her wings after mating in the air. She watches hordes of voracious ants eat slow-moving snakes, gorged with food. She sees other ants inject venomous stings into nestling birds and sleeping frogs. She watches as they carve the creatures into movable chunks.”
Another highlight of The Dreaming Girl is Allen’s deft portrayal of how people crave human connection, yet remain profoundly isolated in the presence of others. The girl and the German find a momentary respite from loneliness in each other’s arms, but their desire for each other is suffused with fantasy, and it quickly erodes as they get to know each other: “She [the girl] wants him to be the way she dreams him: she wants to see him do and say the things that are familiar from her dream. It is scary for her to see that he lives a life apart from the one she dreams.” There is very little dialogue; and when the characters do speak to each other, they rarely say what they are actually thinking.
We feel as alienated from the characters as they do from each other; we don’t even know their real names. This makes the novel hard to read at times; although it does encourage us to ponder how we grapple with solitude in our own lives, and the dreams we construct to boost failing relationships, or simply to keep us company.
Regardless, readers prone to wanderlust will delight in traveling with Allen into rural Belize — without having to endure the swarms of mosquitoes or suffocating heat of a real trip.