Books: Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel and a couple from 2008: The Sleepwalker, Dreamers of the Day and the Story of Edgar Sawtelle


The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian

If you are a fan of Bohjalian, you will know that he often sets his novels in Vermont and that some of them have very twisty mysteries.  The Sleepwalker, his latest novel, has both.  It is the story of a beautiful woman, Annalee Ahlberg, who is a sleepwalker (later we find out she is a sleepsexer) who disappears one night when her husband is away at a conference.  Her daughters, Lianna (the narrator of the story and a college student) and twelve-year-old Paige are devastated as they try to find out what happened to her.

At first, it appears as if she walked into a river and drowned while she was asleep and that is what most people in the town assumed happened.  It is not until later that questions arise around that theory.  Along the way, Lianna becomes involved with a police detective investigating the disappearance of her mother.  He was also a close friend of Annalee and twelve years older than Lianna which borders on the very creepy.  How the family copes with grief as Lianna becomes increasingly skeptical of her new boyfriend and what he is hiding is also a theme.

This book reminded me somewhat of “Double Bind” Bohjalian’s masterpiece which was also set in Vermont and super twisty.  The author is very good at delivering surprise endings and this latest mystery is no exception.   Along the way, you will learn more about sleepwalking than you ever wanted to know.  I probably now need to reread the book to catch all the clues  Bohjalian leaves along the way because I’m sure they were there and I missed them the first go around.  Sleepwalker will be popular with Bohjalian fans.  It isn’t the best of his novels, nor the best mystery out there but it is perfectly satisfying and worth a read.

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

What makes this 2008 novel something to check out is not the quality of the novel (it is lightweight and sometimes borders on the absurd) but how it gives us glimpses into a period of history that created the basis for much of the instability in today’s Middle East.  The main character and narrator of the novel is Agnes, the only member of her Ohio family to survive the flu epidemic of 1919.  A spinster-like character who had lived with her mother, she buys an expensive wardrobe with her small inheritance and sets out to visit Egypt.  Her motives are a bit unclear but her sister’s family had been missionaries in the Middle East and so that seemed to be the connection.

Agnes arrives in Cairo with her dog (not exactly welcome in Muslim society) at the time of the Cairo Conference which established the boundaries for the modern day Middle East.  She meets up with T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) who had been friends with her sister.  She also encounters Gertrude Bell, one of the most influential women of the 20th century.  Winston Churchill takes her to see the pyramids and she also has a somewhat one-sided relationship with a German spy Karl who is likely based on an amalgamation of Germans who were spies in the area at the time.

Dreamers of the Day doesn’t have enough history in it for my liking and the novel is at times a bit silly but it will cause many readers to further research the Cairo Conference and Gertrude Bell.  There are several great biographies of Bell to read  as well as T.E. Lawrence (including the well regarded “Lawrence In Arabia” by Scott Anderson).  If you have never heard of the Cairo Conference or Gertrude Bell, it is well worth your time to check out this novel.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

I first read this novel in 2008 when it came out and didn’t remember a lot about it except that it was (a) depressing (b) about a lot of dogs, (c)  well reviewed and (d) there was a big fire.  I have this novel on audio CDs and as there is always  an audio book going in my car, I figured I’d reread it.  This was probably a mistake. This story of a handicapped boy and his family’s dog kennel is modelled after Hamlet and we all know how Shakespearian tragedies end.

The story takes place in a small town in Wisconsin where Edgar, who is unable to speak, lives with his parents.  They own a dog kennel where they breed and train extraordinary dogs that are sold across the country.  Beware, you will know more about his family’s dog breeding techniques than you’ll ever want or need to know.  Despite not being able to speak, Edgar has his own sign language and is able to train dogs.  The first tragedy strikes early in the book when Edgar’s father dies.  His uncle Claude (think Claudius) comes to help Edgar and his mother Trudy (think Queen Gertrude) and of course, there is a ghost.

Along with the Shakespearean characters and the ghost, Edgar runs away for what seems to be one of the longest sojourns into the wilderness ever.  I won’t spoil the ending other than to say it is representative of what happens with Shakespear’s tragedies but, the dogs do survive – this could only be more depressing if there were dead animals.  This novel is compelling, well written (although overly long) and if you are in the mood for something really heavy and depressing, go for it.