Sex, secrets and the mysteries of sleep: These are the provocative ingredients in Chris Bohjalian’s spooky thriller “The Sleepwalker.” It’s a dark, Hitchcockian novel featuring two beautiful icy blondes reminiscent of those found in many of the renowned director’s films.
The suspenseful tale centers on the death of one of those blondes, 47-year-old Annalee Ahlberg, an architect, mother of two and a chronic sleepwalker. It appears as if she has “walked herself to her death in a moment of slow-wave, third-stage sleep” and drowned in a river near her Vermont home. But did something more nefarious happen?
The evidence would lead us to believe so. Annalee, we learn, is no ordinary sleepwalker. She’s a “sleep sexer.” At night she rises “like the undead from the sheets,” and when her husband isn’t home to satisfy her libidinal demands, it’s intimated, she wanders into the neighborhood. On the night she disappeared, Annalee’s husband, Warren, an English professor, was at a conference.
Was Annalee a sleepwalking seducer of her neighbors’ husbands? Did one of them — or someone else — murder her? These are some of the many intriguing possibilities in Bohjalian’s atmospheric 18th novel.
Narrated primarily by Annalee’s 21-year-old daughter, Lianna — the other icy blonde — the novel tells the story of a grieving family searching for answers. Warren douses his pain in alcohol; Paige, Annalee’s younger daughter, spends her days searching for her mother or her corpse; and college dropout Lianna starts a relationship — a decidedly creepy one — with Gavin Rikert, a 33-year-old detective investigating Annalee’s disappearance (who also happens to be a sleep sexer).
Lianna obsesses over whether Gavin and her mother were having an affair, but she can’t stop herself from getting involved with him anyway. Oddly, for such a sex-charged story — you can practically smell the pheromones — there’s little physical intimacy. That’s why, when Bohjalian allows us to witness a bizarre sexual encounter, it has the feel of Dracula overpowering Mina Harker in Bram Stoker’s horror novel.
Bohjalian immerses his drama in the murky world of sleepwalking and the science that studies it. Lest the story get too weighed down with dry, clinical-sounding references — “noctivagant tendencies” and“nocturnal eccentricities” — the poetic Bohjalian opts for sexier phraseology, at times likening a sleepwalker to a vampire who seeks partners to satisfy lust in the middle of the night — a “predatory sex zombie ,” a “sexual werewolf” or a “sexually voracious golem.”
If you’re not yet intrigued, check your pulse, because Bohjalian’s only getting started. You’re going to be an expert on sleep sex by book’s end, and, trust me, you will not be able to stop thinking about it days after you finish reading this book.
Like many of Bohjalian’s novels, this neo-New England gothic ends with a surprising and most satisfying twist. It was so deliciously dark that I reread “The Sleepwalker” to pick up on all the subtle clues this clever novelist dropped with poetically perfect precision throughout. In one scene, Lianna recalls a line in one of Warren’s poems “about how we work to reject the realities right in front of us.” That’s the sleight of hand Bohjalian deals his readers in “The Sleepwalker.”
Carol Memmott reviews books for The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
By Chris Bohjalian
Doubleday. 304 pp. $26.95