Child sexual abuse is not an everyday theme in literature. But Iman Verjee’s new novel, In Between Dreams, does not merely touch on the topic. It makes it the basis of its entire story, and that is one of the features that make the book stand out.
Child sexual abuse is repulsive, but Iman’s handling of it is unpretentiously outstanding. In Between Dreams, set in Canada, is a first-person narrative by a troubled teenage girl, Frances. Her parents love her, but she is difficult towards them. She adores her father, James, but dislikes her mother, Marienne.
Iman superbly uses flashback to tell the story of Frances parallel to that of her father separately. The book begins in 1992 St Albert, Canada. But after the teenager goes to boarding school, the writer interchanges chapters, mostly between years past in St Albert, where the parents are, and Whitehorse, Yukon, where Frances is schooling.
The plot delves into two people’s unorthodox behaviour. James cannot seem to be able to control wanting Frances who, though very young, gets into a romantic relationship with him.
Frances’ illicit bond with James began when she was six and at 13, she is “in love” with him.
James is overcome by his desires and the relationship takes a sexual twist. But at her age, she is not able to understand the relationship she has with her father. In Between Dreams is Frances’ account of her “love” affair with James, how he stole her innocence, and how she found it back.
Tangled with Frances’ story is that of the paedophilic James, a disturbed man whose childhood was filled with secrets that trouble him; the death of his sister as a child being one.
James married Marienne but never really loved her. And he never wanted children; Frances is the result of an affair he had with his wife’s friend Gina — an affair triggered by his sexual arousal after seeing a young girl while he was with Gina. Marienne leaves James, then Frances’ biological mother abandons the child and James. He raises Frances alone before Marienne later returns.
Slowly, he begins being overprotective of Frances, jealous of envious eyes around her, and finally becomes intimate with her. It does not help his situation that in her teen age, Frances’ feelings for her father grow stronger, and she wants him the same way he wants her.
Nevertheless, you do not feel for James. Nothing calls for his behaviour. He has opportunities to change and tell Frances what they are doing is wrong but his selfish desires prevent him from doing so.
Iman helps us get to understand child sexual molestation from the both sides: that of the person who commits it as well as that of the victim. She enables the reader comprehend their characters in relation to child sexual molestation.
Through the two characters, we get to fathom more what drives people to engage in child sexual molestation; we see that there is more to the people involved in this unfortunate evil than just wickedness.
The novel mixes the young-adult fiction genre — particularly because of the teenager Frances’ narration, experience and interaction with her agemates in the schools she attends — and the erotic fiction genre because of the sexually-themed scenes involving the girl and her father.
Iman is very descriptive in her writing, helping make her characters, plot, setting and theme more understandable. She develops the story slowly and almost secretively, perhaps self-consciously. Consider this excerpt when Frances’ father takes her out on her 14th birthday:
“Everything smells young and fresh; reborn after a harsh winter, eager to please…he looks brighter, sharper, surrounded by all this loveliness…But I ignore him, wanting to watch him from a distance. Trying to figure out if the way I see him is the way other people do as well”.
Why the topic sexual abuse?
“It’s a terrible thing to have to happen to anyone and it’s imperative that society deals with it,” the author tells Lifestyle. “I wrote to show readers that abusers are also human beings who are struggling with feelings; that although they may want to seek help, they could be afraid to do so because sexual abuse is such a taboo subject and they are fearful of being judged or criminalised.”
Reading In Between Dreams brings up thoughts of Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial 1955 masterpiece Lolita. In Lolita, a 37-38 year old literature professor is obsessed with a 12-year-old girl, with whom he becomes sexually involved after he becomes her stepfather.
Iman explains the connection between her novel and Lolita, as well another book, The End of Alice (1996) by American writer AM Homes, which is about a middle-aged paedophile and child killer who is serving a life sentence.
“Although both of these novels are told from the perspective of the abuser, it was never from an empathising point of view, and I thought it would be interesting to explore that aspect; to show readers that the world isn’t black and white, that just because someone does something terrible, doesn’t make one necessarily evil”.
As to who the real victim in this story is, a paedophilic James who spoils a naïve Frances or an immoral Frances who exploits a weak James, Iman observes that the joy of reading a novel is that everyone will be able to form their own opinions on such questions. Still, to her, “the victim in the novel is most certainly Frances”.