The Dream Life of Sukhanov is a rare, beautifully-written book that explores a fundamental theme: where the choices we make in our lives take us.
Sukhanov, a 56-year-old art critic in Moscow in the mid-1980s, who long ago "sold out" to have a peaceful, comfortable life in a country that does not respect true art, begins to find that his walled-off past is starting to invade the present. Little by little, triggered by incidents in the present day, he faces the choices he has made over the years. The wall does not come tumbling down neatly, brick by brick, but rather like it has sprung occasional leaks. Sukhanov races to repair the damage again and again, reasserting his stuffy, arrogant self each time.
The attacks from his past come in the form of dreams, both while he sleeps and when he is awake, and without warning. The drifting into dreams become more frequent, and we begin to enter Sukhanov's mind ourselves, as the third-person narrative increasingly slides into the first.
While the dreams threaten to take over, the present does not stop trotting along, plunging Sukhanov into a world he had for so long tried to avoid. Assailed from the present as well as the past, Sukhanov eventually finds escape.
In addition to exploring Sukhanov's personal demons, Grushin brings us into the world of art, particularly surrealist and impressionist art. As other reviewers have noted, the writing itself is often impressionistic and nearly surreal. Just as the great impressionist painters were able to bring their visions to a diverse audience, so is Grushin able to paint so that we understand, and at the same time we sometimes gasp with wonder.