Unlike the central character in Chris Bohjalian’s “The Sleepwalker,” the author’s 19th novel is itself a sleeper. Calm and slow-paced, it is the kind of mystery that builds to a startling climax, the kind that makes the reader wonder how such a trick was pulled off.
Some of the answers are obvious. For starters, the Vermont-based Bohjalian, author of such previous bestsellers as “The Guest Room,” knows how to set up intrigue.
“The Sleepwalker” opens soon after a disappearance in a small Vermont town. Two weeks earlier, the beautiful Annalee Ahlberg, who has a history of somnabulism, apparently left her bed during the night and has not been seen since. Only a scrap of her nightgown, a shred caught on a bush near a road, offers any clue to where she went.
The characters are compelling as well. Lianna Ahlberg, the narrator and the missing woman’s older daughter, is both smart and perceptive but also blinded by her fears, with more than a trace of the adolescent antagonism she will soon leave behind. When we meet her, Lianna, who has taken a leave from college because of her mother’s disappearance, is back in her hometown of Bartlett, waiting.
“We hadn’t given up all hope that she would return alive — at least I hadn’t,” she says. “[B]ut every day it grew harder to feign optimism for our father or say the right things (the appropriate things) when people asked us how we were doing.”
This observation is tossed off, easy to forget. There’s so much else happening — an ongoing police investigation, the dredging of the nearby Gale River, and unsettling questions for Annalee’s poetry professor husband about why a mother of two would simply disappear.
Ultimately, everyone keeps circling back to Annalee’s history of sleepwalking. Although she had been treated for the condition, her previous incidents had usually happened in the past when her husband was out of town — as he was on the night in question.
To make matters worse, the narrator cannot forget the one time, four years earlier, when she found her mother, poised naked on the concrete balustrade of a bridge. “The bridge was high enough that had she jumped she would have been crippled or killed,” she recalls.
Paige, Lianna’s 12-year-old sister, seems to believe this is what happened. She cannot stop searching the Gale and the woods nearby, even as her older sister worries about her health.
When Lianna learns that a handsome young detective, Gavin Rickert, shares her mother’s condition and that the two had known each other, the possibilities multiply. And while she suspects that Gavin isn’t telling her all he knows, Lianna finds herself drawn to him anyway.
A series of anonymous observations on somnambulism — apparently by a sleepwalker — break up the chapters of Lianna’s narration. They hint at a dark and sexual manifestation of the disorder and wrestle with issues of guilt and responsibility.
Bohjalian often centers his novels on social and psychological issues, and this is one behavioral problem he has clearly researched thoroughly. But very little is what it seems in this mystery, and even the most casual observation is worth keeping in mind.
While Bohjalian skillfully crafts his puzzle, “The Sleepwalker” isn’t perfect. The first half moves quite slowly, as Lianna — who is often stoned — goes through the motions of caring for her sister and father, while dodging her own emotions. It’s a realistic depiction of grief — Lianna is frozen, unable to commit to returning to college or even reconnecting with her old friends at home. But it does grind on.
And although we are given a hint of what is to come in Lianna’s one ongoing involvement, performing magic tricks for children, her distanced narrative doesn’t give us much insight into the appeal of her unconventional vocation. In addition, her involvement with Gavin is a problem. This seems to have occurred to Bohjalian too as he takes pains to have a detective dismiss the conflict of interest since Annalee’s disappearance isn’t a murder investigation. However, it isn’t likely that any police force would condone a sexual relationship between a cop and someone involved in his investigation.
But these are quibbles. Without giving anything away, it is safe to say that Bohjalian does a masterful job of planting false clues. While we learn much about sleepwalking and about the myriad ways a behavioral disorder can disrupt a family, we do not know until the last pages how much of this is relevant to Annalee’s disappearance. Only then do we realize how much we have learned — both about this strange phenomenon and about the woman we finally understand.
By Chris Bohjalian
Doubleday, 304 pp., $26.95
Clea Simon, a novelist and freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.