Chris Bohjalian is a gifted writer able to weave a fabric of credible fictional characters, intricate plots, and carefully researched history to create exceptional literature. In The Sleepwalker, Bohjalian
links parasomnia, a sleep disorder involving the dreams that occur during arousal from sleep, to the disappearance of
40-something wife and mother Annalee Ahlberg. In the year 2000, in the town of Bartlett, Vermont, Lianna
(Annalee’s 21-year-old daughter is convinced that her mother’s body is decaying at the bottom of the Gale River. While the police are surprised that Annalee’s body is still missing, neither Lianna nor her
12-year-old sister, Paige, can give up hope that their mother will return alive.
Still, life goes on. Lianna drifts throughout her days, calling her friends at college, doing her magic tricks, and smoking pot. Warren, her father, seeks solace back at work, teaching poetry courses at the local college, while Paige throws herself into her beloved skiing.
Father and daughters are convinced in their heart that Annalee walked herself to death in a moment of slow-wave third-stage sleep. As the weeks go by and there’s no word from the authorities, Lianna finds
plunges into an overwhelming landscape of guilt and self-loathing. She can’t bear to leave her father and Paige alone. As she attempts to deconstruct her mother’s last night, Lianna keeps coming back to how pedestrian Annalee’s last night was: “there were no warnings, no ominous asides, nothing that could be construed by even the most rabid conspiracy theorists.”
Bhojalian’s segues outward as he attempts to dissect the scientific world of
somnambulism, how can dreams lead us from our bed and from a dangerous sleep. Plagued by her memories, Lianna recalls
rescuing her mother as she climbed atop the concrete balustrade the bridge over the Gale. Had Annabelle jumped, she would have been crippled or killed in an act of somnambulism that occurred only when her husband was out of town--including the night when she vanished once and for all. Intent to reconstruct the days leading up to her mother’s vanishing, Lianna remembers
Annalee fighting with Warren about the depression that Annabelle was convinced was under control.
An undercurrent of sexual tension is anchored by Annalee’s “sex-dreams” and her enigmatic relationship with Detective Gavin Rikert, who initially arrives in town to investigate Annalee’s disappearance but is soon courting Lianna with kindly offers of dinner and the chance to attend a magic show in Montreal. Lianna’s bourgeoning attraction to handsome, blond-haired Gavin--a man several years her senior--is tempered by the
fact that he attended the same sleep clinic as Annalee and may know more about
her mother’s disappearance than he initially lets on.
With the aftermath of the tragedy still longer dodging her “like a bad dream,” Lianna plunges into her own investigation, learning that Gavin was “the second man”
to whom her mother was emotionally tethered. Gavin tells her that it was probably an accident, and “we need to find her soon.” Lianna senses a subterranean ripple of pain in the man’s actions. To get a definitive answer, she turns to Marilyn Brice, a local hippie painter around her mother’s age. Amidst the tea and dope, Marilyn finally begins to confides to Lianna how Annalee’s sleepwalking scared her, especially after she was pulled off Gale bridge.
While the core of the novel is obviously the mystery behind Annalee’s
whereabouts, the story addresses Lianna’s stirringly sexual coming-of-age, so deftly painted by Bhojalian that the experience of reading it is at times quite devastating. There are themes here that readers familiar with Bhojalian’s writing will recognize: emotional and familial displacement, the unintentional dissonance between loved ones, and the secrets from which we may run but can never escape.
Here Bhojalian broadens his thematic canvas to include the perils of infertility and the strange, shadowy, vampire-like world of sex-sleeping. Bohjalian pulls no punches in laying bare Lianna’s interior thoughts as he cleverly juxtaposes her increasing attraction to Gavin with her complex relationship to her parents and to Paige, who will come play an integral part in the mystery.
Bhojalian refuses to back away from the ugly realities of Lianna’s life and the thrum of words from the community that her mother was some sort of “sexual werewolf” who rose as if from “the undead beneath the sheets.” Although many say the novel is eerily reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s
Dracula, I thought the novel more an expose on how strikingly real characters are forced to live with the untended consequences of their actions.