Chris Bohjalian’s compelling novel “The Sleepwalker” tells the story of a family with sleepwalking in their genes.
by Chris Bohjalian
Doubleday, 304 pp., $26.95
Somnambulism seems an improbable subject to build a novel around. But Chris Bohjalian’s latest, “The Sleepwalker,” joins a lengthy list of his fiction centered on seemingly unlikely topics. Among them: homeopathy, midwifery and transsexuality.
If these books share anything beyond the author’s penchant for finding unusual starting points, it’s that they are both literary and compelling, a combination so rare I’m tempted to apply for federal intervention.
“The Sleepwalker” starts with a death. At least Annalee Ahlberg is presumed dead. She is a sleepwalker, but not your stroll-around-the-house-and-get-back-in-bed sleepwalker. One winter night, for example, she took her skis and went cross-country in the woods behind her Vermont home. Another evening she left her home naked and was discovered by older daughter Lianna, about to jump off a bridge.
And finally there is the night the book opens in the summer of 2000. This time no one stops her wandering, and when a body is not immediately found, the pain of the uncertainty — faint hope mixed with the probable reality — wreaks havoc on the family.
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Lianna narrates. She’s a 21-year-old college senior who doesn’t return immediately to school after her mother’s disappearance, staying home to care for her younger sister, Paige, and college professor dad, Warren.
We learn more about the family: Lianna is an amateur magician who earns money working kids’ parties; Paige is a talented competitive skier. Both girls inherited whatever it is in their genes that causes sleepwalking, though neither seems to be as severely impacted as their mother.
Despite her grief, Lianna is attracted to the young state police detective investigating the case, and continues to date him even after she catches him in several lies about his earlier relationship with Annalee.
I hesitate to say more, because to know too much may spoil the fun of discovery. Rest assured the denouement is perfect. This is Bohjalian at his very best.