Traveling to a dreamlike realm, a man embarks on a difficult quest but may have trouble returning to reality in this novel.
Burt Higgins spends his post-retirement days alone in his Massachusetts home. His wife, Betty, a retired art teacher, is in New York studying for her MFA. One day, Burt lights a candle he bought in Prague, where the shopkeeper claimed the item was magical. A boy appears and says he's Burt's guide to take him wherever he wishes to travel. He chooses to go to "the source of despair," apparently the origin of the "murky shadow" connected to the guide. In this other world, two children, Matthias and Hannah, mistake Burt, still in his bathrobe, for a wizard. He befriends them and their mother, Elizabeth. When someone later abducts one of the kids, Burt revises his mission—ending all despair—to include a rescue. This is possible, as the guide is the "scribe" of Burt's story. But it means Burt will be part of this world and have a harder time returning to his own. Soon, he's recalling memories of life with Betty and their two kids and questioning which world is the real one. Litwack (Along the Watchtower, 2018, etc.) doesn't hide the possibility that Burt is dreaming. But there is definite mystery, as the protagonist suspects the realm he believed was real is actually a dream. This makes for intriguing dual worlds: The alternate one is often familiar (a family much like Burt's) while the real world has fantasy elements (terrorists are cruel in the same way as storybook villains). Ultimately, the tale excels as a fantasy, with elements like portals and an enchanted sword, and as a drama, with breast-cancer survivor Betty having undergone a biopsy, its results unknown at the narrative's start. But the author truly shines in more conceptual moments. Burt contemplates a version of the afterlife that is, essentially, a "forever dream" of accumulated, imagination-enhancing memories.
A keen and delightful multigenre tale about a hero grappling with two worlds.