On the strength of her previous book, "The Vampire Tapestry," one comes to this latest Charnas novel with high expectations. "Dorothea Dreams" is a novel of the supernatural, demanding of its readers some measure of sensitivity. There is a ghost, but, like most of the characters in this book, it is a quiet ghost -- a bourgeois survivor of the French Revolution who appears in the dreams of a contemporary woman in New Mexico.
"Dorothea Dreams" is more than a ghost story, however. The catalyst for the protagonist's haunted dreams is an old friend dying of cancer. This moribund Englishman has come to see Dorothea before the end and somehow seems to have brought the ghost with him. At the same time, trouble brews in nearby Taos as a group of young Latins attempt to stop a corporation from gobbling up their neighborhood. A riot erupts, a policeman shoots an innocent bystander and is himself injured. One of the teen-agers, Roberto, is unfairly blamed, and he flees, having no illusions about Anglo justice for people of his ethnic background.
How these plot strands come together makes for fascinating reading: a boy fleeing for his life, a man resigned to his imminent death, and another man who is already dead. Dorothea's connection to all three seems tenuous at first, at least in the cases of the boy and the ghost, but Charnas fits them into her ambitious design as neatly as Dorothea fits bits of porcelain, stones and wire into a work of art on a desert hillside.
It is not the structure of the novel that impresses most, however, but the characterizations and thematic richness. Charnas is careful to understand her characters, to get inside their skins, rather than just make them go through the paces while she builds her story. It is a testament to her novelistic ability that love scenes between Dorothea and Ricky, the dying man, are beautiful and touching, rather than lurid or syrupy as they might have been in less skilled hands.
Eventually, Dorothea, Ricky and an art class are held captive by the young renegade Roberto. But there is no clear villain, no one for a hero to blow away in the final chapters to make the world safe again. Here, brutality is a result of frustration and misguided energies, not of evil. People are frightened because Roberto needs to impose his own fear upon them. A dog is shot, not in cold blood but in hot rage, perpetrated by a boy in over his head who cannot control his anger and resentment any longer. Charnas feels for Roberto as much as his victims; he's a confused kid who probably wouldn't have done anything criminal had he not had the misfortune of being born in a certain place at a certain time.
It is not Roberto who commands our attention however, but the complex and reclusive Dorothea. She is a magnificent creation, fully realized; a middle-aged artist with enough dormant strength to sustain three people, as she discovers through the ordeal. Furthermore, she is forced to make a decision at the climax of this novel that we are all faced with at one time or another. Conventional notions versus one's personal vision: should she listen to the discursive revenant, who dispenses wisdom through the centuries, or should she act on her own? Charnas alone knows, but she doesn't telegraph her climax. The revelation emerges naturally from the narrative, and once in the open, it is obviously the only choice Dorothea possibly could have made. Nevertheless, as in real life, Dorothea's reaction under stress surprises her as much as it does us. This is a good novel not in spite of being a ghost story, but rather because it's a ghost story -- and a beautifully realized, unconventional one at that.