Book review - Melisande! What Are Dreams?

Hillel Halkin's touching novel about love and friendship opens in New York in the 1950s and ends on a remote Greek island in the 1980s.

Three high-school friends share a passion for books and edit the student literary magazine. Hoo is secretly in love with Melisande but, when she initially chooses his best friend, Ricky, the balance between them subtly shifts. Ricky decides to leave school to become a bhikshu or wanderer. In a memorable passage, he goes to Central Park with Hoo and tries to give away his hard-earned dollars. He ends up in India under the tutelage of a renowned mystic.

Returning to New York, Ricky's behaviour becomes more and more erratic as his search for enlightenment falters and he begins to hear voices. Melisande and Hoo watch helplessly as he slowly goes off the rails and ends up hospitalised.

Ricky's dislocation from reality leaves the way open for Melisande and Hoo's love affair to blossom, and they marry. Throughout their relationship, Ricky casts a shadow. The first cracks in their marriage appear when Melisande discovers that she is unable to conceive, and becomes obsessed with adopting a child. Halkin is eloquent when describing Melisande's increasing resentment towards her husband. Equally, it seems, Hoo cannot quite forgive her for her relationship with Ricky.

Essentially, this is a beautifully crafted love letter from Hoo to Melisande that explores the nature of memory. Now a retired academic, he looks back over their life together, their early friendship and time apart. Hoo reflects on how a love of different books helped to shape the three friends' destinies. Ricky's love for Camus and Dostoyevsky led him abroad, Hoo became a scholar of ancient Greek philosophy, while Melisande's passion for Keats was transmuted into weaving beautiful textiles and tapestry.

This gentle, satisfying novel touches on philosophy, poetry and mysticism as a means of better understanding ourselves in order to reach out and touch another. Halkin has a tender eye for the bittersweet journey of love: the shared joys and tiny betrayals, the mistakes and triumphs, and, finally, the healing power of forgiveness.

Originally published in the Independent