As a kid, I walked in my sleep a few times. So did my kids — and plenty of friends and relatives can tell usually funny stories of one or two incidents.
It’s not funny, though, in “The Sleepwalker,” the newest novel from best-selling author Chris Bohjalian. Scary, limiting and downright dangerous, sleepwalking inspires a hard-to-put-down story that also mixes sex and a mystery in a polished package.
Annalee Ahlberg is a sleepwalker who has disappeared, and her two daughters fear the worst. Lianna is 21 and a college student; Paige is 12.
To make their mother’s disappearance worse, the girls feel responsible. Annalee only sleepwalks when her husband is out of town. When she vanishes, he had left their Vermont home for a poetry conference in Iowa — his first time spending a night away from his wife in years because of her sleepwalking.
Lianna, the story’s primary narrator, has witnessed her mother’s sleepwalking in the past, once when she spray-painted a hydrangea.
“And then there was the night other neighbors, Fred and Rosemary Harmon, outside together to gaze at a spectacular full moon, saw me walking my mother back over the bridge across the Gale River by the general store a little past midnight. 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 on 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.”
Annalee, a beautiful blonde, is more than a sleepwalker. She is also a “sleep sexer” — which raises even more questions about how she only sleepwalks when her husband is away and her subconscious libido needs some tending.
Bohjalian is a gifted writer; the mystery is not really about Annalee’s fate — it seems clear she’s dead. But the author weaves in hints, a red herring or two and a backstory that will leave readers with competing theories about who Annalee was and how that might have determined her fate.
There’s also the delicious question of the handsome detective who begins a flirtation with Lianna and is himself a sleepwalker who had met Annalee earlier in a support group. Lianna wonders whether they had an affair, and Bohjalian hits all the creepy marks with thoughts of a man involved with both mother and daughter.
But is the detective a suspect or merely a victim of sleepwalking? I’m not telling, and Bohjalian makes that murkiness work in the story.
Lianna dabbles in detective work, trying to piece together her mother’s fate. Paige keeps looking for her mother’s body and Warren, the dad, seems to turn mostly to alcohol to dull his sorrows.
Bohjalian is on top of his already stellar game with “The Sleepwalker,” which may prove irresistible to some screenwriter, somewhere.