It is hardly unusual these days to find that the protagonist of a widely admired paperback is a writer. Nor is it uncommon to discover that the same rhapsodically reviewed novel takes as its theme the stuff of Saturday magazine opinion pieces, skirmishes from the culture wars fought out on Twitter’s battlefield.

What is exceptional is to come across a fiction in which those artistic choices are absolutely fundamental to the success of its narrative, one from which its thematic concerns unspool with a naturalness that never once feels forced.

Rather than cause it to sink, then, Dream Girl is more apt to make one’s heart sing. Or, since in many respects it operates as a thriller, to place it in one’s mouth, and in one scene far more horrific than the off-page murders, to stop it dead.

The character at the centre of the plot’s web is Gerry Andersen, a name that, at least for older British readers, is likely to evoke a man who pulled the strings of his puppet cast. Just as appositely, it brings to mind his near-namesake’s wife, Sylvia, his sometimes-overlooked collaborator, often relegated to his shadows.

While Lippman explicitly acknowledges the influence of Stephen King’s Misery on her work in an afterword, Gerry’s situation arguably has even more in common with that of the noir writer Philip Marlow in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective; blocked, bedbound and haunted by his biography. Indeed, more like Potter than King, Lippmann shows an affectionate disregard for genre limitations, side-stepping them smartly with exactly the control her protagonist is denied – drugged and disorientated, adrift between the past and the present tense, neither fact nor fiction.

Dream Girl - Laura LippmanIn Gerry’s case, his chief ghost is Aubrey, the female Dream Girl of his most well-received novel, someone who he’s always maintained is entirely his own creation. Her gradual manifestation raises other spirits, friends, wives and a father he has attempted to write out of his life, but it appears it is only the imaginary Aubrey who has a foothold in the material world, calling him in his sleep, appearing to him in the night.

There’s a suggestion, perhaps, of Hitchcock’s Rear Window in Gerry’s growing conviction in what his senses are telling him is real, and his desperation to insist upon his interpretation to Aileen, his sleep-in nurse, and Victoria, his assistant during office hours, both of whom remain steadfast in having their own ideas about what exactly is going on.

The twists, when the corkscrew of the plot mechanics is applied, wrong-foot the immobile Gerry, mostly because he has been busily misdirecting himself, assuming an authorial omniscience on the events of his own life and paying attention to the wrong things; mistrustful of generalities, like rolling news and identity politics, to the detriment of more personal specifics. In particular, it’s his inability to see women as more than the sum of their appearance (the reader is told that Gerry was ‘charmed’ by one lover ‘although her calves were quite thick’) that has led Gerry’s critics to deduce that the avowedly imaginary Aubrey must be drawn from a real original. She is simply too convincing to have been written by so narrow a male gaze.

The final sleight of hand, however, is all Lippman’s, a bravura conceit that throws everything the reader thinks they know about Gerry into an entirely different light. In contrast to the hastily ill-conceived murders that punctuate the tightening of Dream Girl’s vice, Lippmann’s own plot, exhilarating, pertinent, concisely incisive and blackly comic, is flawlessly executed.

By Desmond Bullen


Dream Girl by Laura Lippman is published by Faber and available to buy now.