The Sleepwalker a Thrilling Mystery

Chris Bohjalian
Doubleday, 284 pages

The tenor of Chris Bohjalian’s new novel is established by the Sylvia Plath epigraph that opens the book: “I am terrified by this dark thing that sleeps in me.” It is, exactly as billed, a story in which a major character, Annalee Ahlberg, sleepwalks.

Annalee is in her late forties, but still strikingly beautiful and the mother of two precious daughters: Lianna, a senior at Amherst College; and twelve-year-old Paige, precocious beyond her years. Annalee is an architect and her husband, Warren, a professor at Middlebury College. They live the life of the privileged upper middle class—complete with a sprawling Victorian home in the nearby village of Bartlett—except for two complicating factors: Annalee has had multiple miscarriages and she’s prone to sleepwalking. Hers isn’t the kind in which she cluelessly raids the fridge at 3 am; she roams in ways that put her in danger. Lianna once found her naked on the bridge railing high above the Gale River; one slip and she surely would have died.

Bohjalian is a masterful storyteller who knows how to build suspense. He also does his homework. Annalee is a major character, but in absence. One night, when her husband is at an academic conference, Annalee disappears. What became of her? That’s the heart of this novel and, along the way, you will learn a lot about sleepwalking. Perhaps you find this thin material from which to construct a mystery. I assure you that you’re wrong. What happened to Annalee becomes the consuming passion of Warren, his daughters, and Detective Gavin Rickert, who knows a few things about sleepwalking as he too has been treated for that disorder. Coincidentally, Annalee was in his support group. Or was that merely a coincidence?

Bohjalian probes lots of things, including how sleepwalking is treated and how families deal with unresolved grief. Lianna is the functional adult in the story—the one who deals with the prosaic details over which her flighty father stumbles, provides emotional support for her sister, serves as the mom substitute who takes Paige to swim meets, and is the reliable link between the investigation and the investigators. All anyone has to go on is a small piece of fabric from Annalee’s nightgown discovered near the river. Is Annalee in the river? How does one deal with the uncertainty? As the main adult in the room, Lianna unearths things about her parents that children don’t usually want to know, all of which raise questions. Who are the self-identified close friends Lianna only saw as casual acquaintances? Did her mother have a lover? What does her sleepwalking counselor know about her condition? Why did it reappear after many years? Is the condition heritable?

The Sleepwalker is a taut mystery. Parts of it will creep you out; other sections will make your skin crawl as well—but for reasons that are different from what you first imagined. It’s a credit to Bohjalian that he can make us feel such things and keep us unbalanced and uncertain in the process. To be fair, some may find contrived detail, and I can imagine that some readers will be perturbed by they feel is as an inappropriate relationship. Like all mystery novels, of course, the lead detective spends more time on Annalee’s disappearance than would ever happen in real life.

No matter. This book is the epitome of a page-turner. As an added bonus, Bohjalian frequently sets his novels in recognizable Vermont locations. There is no Bartlett and the actual Gale River is in New Hampshire, but there is a Bartlett Falls on the New Haven River near Bristol, Vermont, which is probably the model for Bohjalian’s village and stream. He uses actual places when scenes shift to Burlington. All of this is to say that The Sleepwalker has an added layer of enjoyment for those who know the Middlebury-Bristol-Burlington area. But you will devour this book even if you’ve never set foot in the Green Mountain State.

Rob Weir

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