Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson
THE SLEEPWALKER. By Chris Bohjalian. Read by Cady McClain and Grace Experience. Random House Audio. 9 ½ hours; 8 CDs. $47.
A new novel from Chris Bohjalian is always cause for celebration. It’s not just that he is a fine writer. He also is brave and inquisitive enough to tackle new and unusual subjects, so that each of his works is like a revelation, whether he’s writing about the Armenian genocide, a midwife in rural Vermont, animal rights, human trafficking, a nuclear accident or something else. This time, the subject is a particularly troubling variety of sleepwalking.
In The Sleepwalker, we meet the Ahlbergs of Vermont during a devastating family crisis. Annalee Ahlberg, wife and mother, has disappeared and is feared to be dead. Annalee, a beautiful woman and a gifted architect, suffers from a bizarre form of sleepwalking that sometimes takes her out of the house and into perilous situations. Once, her older daughter, Lianna, saved her as she was about to plunge off a bridge near their home into the Gale River. Annalee’s episodes usually happen only when her husband, Warren, a college professor is away from home. After therapy and medication, Annalee has been free of sleepwalking for quite a while, so Warren dares to travel to an academic conference in another state for the first time in years.
When Annalee disappears while he’s gone, Lianna and her younger sister feel both devastated and responsible.
As the search for Annalee drags on and then is more or less abandoned, Warren and his daughters struggle to deal with their loss. Not knowing Annalee’s fate makes things even worse.
Annalee disappeared at the end of summer, and Lianna finds herself unable to return to college for her senior year. She finds herself drifting aimlessly through the days, providing a semblance of meals and routine for her father and her sister, Paige, who’s middle-school age and a gifted athlete. In a way, Lianna is sleepwalking through life – or, more accurately, walking, dazed, through a nightmare,
But she’s also trying to learn more about her mother in hopes of solving the mystery of what happened to her, and what she discovers is more and more unsettling. Her mother didn’t just walk in her sleep; she engaged in risky behavior, and that fueled the tensions between Lianna’s parents.
And then there’s Gavin Rikert, a handsome young detective who shows up on the day Annalee is discovered missing to help with the case. Then he comes back, again and again, and soon he and Lianna are in a clandestine relationship. Gavin, Lianna learns, knew her mother from the sleep center where her mother went for treatment. As time goes on, Lianna is torn between her attraction to Gavin and her suspicions about his relationship with her mother as well his intentions toward her.
Bohjalian also has the commendable gift of being able to create women characters who are entirely believable rather than, as so often happens when men write about women, a male fantasy of how women think and react. This book works particularly well as an audiobook, with two women voicing the primary and secondary narrators.
The novel at first seems low-key and almost slow, but the suspense steadily builds as Lianna, bit by bit, learns more of her family’s secrets. Finally, Bohjalian delivers an ending that will leave your head spinning before you realize the truth of what he’s written.