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Book Review: The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian



Longtime readers of best-selling Lincoln author Chris Bohjalian know that his novels tend to pivot around provocative questions with no obvious answer. Book clubs should get plenty of discussion out of the puzzle at the core of his latest, The Sleepwalker: How much responsibility can individuals bear for the things they do in a state of literal unconsciousness? Especially when those things are, well ... sexual?

The dream holds you tight. The voices inside you drone on, but you ignore them because this is but a dream.
So you give in. Lovers don't enter your life out of the blue. You summon them in your sleep.
You have all the cerebral activity but none of the control. None.
And so when you see a new lover, you start to unbutton your shirt.

The narrator of the above passage suffers from a rare parasomnia, or sleep disorder. He or she is, in the book's memorable phrase, a "sleep sexer" who seeks erotic fulfillment while unconscious. Who exactly that speaker is in the novel's narrative, however, is one of the mysteries at its core.

The voice of the sleepwalker appears in cryptic, italicized fragments that introduce chapters telling a more conventional story through a first-person narrator. The protagonist of that story is Lianna Ahlberg, a 21-year-old college student in small-town Vermont who is coping with her mother's abrupt disappearance.

Architect Annalee Ahlberg was a known sleepwalker; her daughter once rescued her from the town bridge, where Annalee perched naked and profoundly unconscious. These unquiet slumbers have coincided with her professor husband's absences from the marital bed.

So when Annalee vanishes from that bed one August night, leaving behind only a scrap of her nightshirt on the riverbank, everyone assumes the worst. Lianna's 12-year-old sister, Paige, wades the river obsessively, refusing to join the state police in admitting defeat. Feeling less hopeful, Lianna takes on her mother's role in the household while conducting her own low-key investigation.

Her primary source is a young detective named Gavin Rikert. Not only did he work the Ahlberg case but he knew Annalee from her time at the University of Vermont's sleep-disorders clinic — where he was a patient. Conveniently enough, Gavin takes a shine to Lianna, and the two embark on a tentative romance that may or may not have sinister undertones.

What happened to Annalee? Can Gavin be trusted? Was Lianna's parents' marriage as stable as she'd always believed? Will Paige ever drop the snarky attitude? Who is the speaker in the increasingly ominous fragments? Why is the novel set in the year 2000? Is there any significance in Lianna's own childhood sleepwalking, or in the fact that she and Annalee bear essentially the same name with its syllables reversed?

Most of those questions will be answered, but readers' degree of satisfaction with the result may depend on what sort of story they think they're reading. "I told myself that I was in the midst of a love story, not a mystery," says Lianna about halfway through the novel. "Not a murder mystery." Later on, Gavin echoes this sentiment back to her: "Why do you keep wanting to view this story as a late-night crime drama? ... Why can't this be a romance?"

As Bohjalian astutely notes with these metafictional utterances, readers have distinctly different expectations for a thriller and a relationship drama. While The Sleepwalker teases our interest by playing on this ambiguity, fans of the two genres may disagree on whether it follows through.

The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian, Doubleday, 304 pages. $26.95.
  • The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian, Doubleday, 304 pages. $26.95.

With their perverse combination of anonymity and intimacy, the italicized fragments promise a dark exploration of human passions, a thriller on the order of Gone Girl. By contrast, Lianna's narrative remains resolutely prosaic: She tends to tell us about, rather than show us, her family and her feelings. Bohjalian's prose is most artful when he dwells on things that one might expect his circumspect heroine to shy away from — such as a wonderfully gruesome description of what a river can do to a corpse.

We learn a lot about the Ahlberg family's routines and Lianna's skills as an amateur magician, but the tepid pace of her narrative can be frustrating. So sheltered is she, and so seemingly immune to dark impulses of her own, that it's hard not to feel as if Bohjalian has kept the novel's most interesting characters just offstage.

Preoccupied as it is with this coming-of-age drama, The Sleepwalker lacks the page-turning urgency that readers of titles such as The Girl on the Train crave. Yet his approach to the thriller genre is undeniably tasteful and thoughtful, and it gives readers ample opportunity to contemplate the questions about personal agency that sleepwalking raises.

The desires of a sleep sexer are voracious and "vampiric," the unidentified narrator suggests at the novel's opening: "The libertine needs of your sleeping soul will be sated. They will." In these sections — by far the strongest writing in the book — Bohjalian evokes ancient fears that our sexual selves are evil doppelgängers that creep out while our moral selves slumber.

The book ultimately suggests that all it takes to put those demons to rest is an understanding partner. It's an enlightened sentiment that is sure to inspire plenty of lively book-club debates — "Would you mind if your spouse was a sleep sexer?" Readers will learn for themselves whether those questions are compelling enough to keep them sleepless into the wee hours.

From The Sleepwalker

I knew it was an old wives' tale that you shouldn't wake a sleepwalker, and so I had woken my mother. By then she had climbed atop the concrete balustrade and was poised like one of the marble angels that stand watch on the bridges across the Tiber and the Seine. The bridge was high enough that had she jumped she would have been crippled or killed: she would have broken her back or crushed her skull or (merely) drowned. She was naked and I, seventeen at the time, was struck by how very beautiful she was. When she was back on the ground, I covered her up in the cardigan sweatshirt I was wearing and led her home.

When my mother was sleepwalking, it seemed she was oblivious even to the cold. One March night, after a late spring blizzard had turned Bartlett into a Currier and Ives print, she took her Nordic skis and went on a cross-country journey throughout the woods behind our house. She had no recollection at breakfast the next morning, but her clothes were drying beside the woodstove — which she had also started in the night — and I followed her tracks the next day when I came home from school.

What all of this somnambulism had in common was that it occurred only when my father was out of town — including the night when she vanished once and for all. It was why the police almost instantly discarded him as a suspect. He had been at a poetry conference in Iowa City.

Of course, that also meant that my mother's disappearance would be a source of guilt and self-loathing for my sister and me. After all, neither of us woke up that night. Why did neither of us hear something, climb from our beds, and stop her? And as the older sibling, the one who once before had pulled our mother back from the precipice — the one who understood as well as anyone her noctivagant tendencies — I felt the remorse especially deeply.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Books Nocturnal Animals"