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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Sleepless Summer

Bram Dehouck

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To purchase Sleepless Summer

Title: Sleepless Summer
Author: Bram Dehouck
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 177 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Sleepless Summer - US
Sleepless Summer - UK
Sleepless Summer - Canada
Un été sans dormir - France
Sommer ohne Schlaf - Deutschland
  • Dutch title: Een zomer zonder slaap
  • Translated by Jonathan Reeder
  • Originally published as A Sleepless Summer

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely black comedy, the many characters well-juggled

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Sleepless Summer is set in the sleepy(-seeming) town of Blaashoek, a wind-hole kind of by the wayside. The city isn't that far away -- several characters regularly bicycle the seven miles, and there is a bus every hour -- but it's a generally quiet place that doesn't attract many visitors. It seems like a decent place to live, however: newcomer Saskia, a young woman recently escaped from an overbearing and violent grandfather who had taken advantage of her, now settled in town with the help of a supportive social services system, quickly takes to it:

     Despite its modest size, Blaashoek offered its inhabitants all the amenities you could want: there was a butcher shop -- the butcher was a jovial fellow, and his wife always politely nodded hello -- and a small grocery, where the manager Patricia was always up for a chat. Saskia liked the town's casual friendliness.
       A change has come to town, however: Windelectrix has erected ten wind turbines along the canal -- Belgium's first wind farm. And the locals -- hardly consulted -- find these prove rather more irritating and intrusive than anyone had suggested. Some find themselves particularly on edge because of them: veterinarian Jan -- with not much of a practice left to keep him busy ("how many house pets were there in Blaashoek ? Three cats and a pair of hamsters") -- finds the shadows of the blades ruining his well-tended garden: "they sliced the meticulously mowed rectangular lawn into irregular wedges as they rotated with the wind". Butcher Herman is kept awake by the incessant humming.
       A short preamble-chapter warn of what is to come: something bad happened, even if it's not exactly specified: "The drama in Blaashoek [...] The town's demise [...] According to some survivors [...]". And the wind turbines, it's suggested, were the tipping point.
       So readers are introduced to the story knowing that all roads lead to (some) catastrophe -- the only questions then being how it unfolds and what exactly it will involve. It's an effective means of putting the reader, too, on edge, and Dehouck then also effectively keeps the suspense simmering.
       There's a large cast of characters. Butcher Herman is put front and center early on: taking great pride in his work, he's especially pleased with his refined pâté. His wife Claire has been turning more to drink, while adolescent son Wes pines for a girl (and indulges in sexual fantasies), his summer sacrifices including bicycling into the city in the hopes of running into her as well as announcing that he's becoming vegetarian, a blow to the father who wants him to follow in his footsteps. Veterinarian Jan doesn't have to worry about his lack of business -- he inherited enough money so that the practice doesn't have to be anything more than a hobby -- but wife Catherine is out for other adventures. Jan also has a rather well-stocked gun cabinet .....
       There's also pharmacist Ivan -- more annoyed by the barking of Saskia's beloved little dog than the wind turbines --, postman Walter and his wife Magda (who is jealous of Claire, and thinks she deserved better in life), and one of Saskia's neighbors, Bienvenue, among others. The town is small enough that, even if everyone doesn't exactly know everyone else's business, they're constantly tripping over one another and getting glimpses into each other's lives.
       The novel is presented day by day, starting on Monday and finishing six days later. Each day-chapter moves between the characters in short sections describing events in their lives, a constant back and forth through town (and sometimes a bit beyond it) with some overlap as various paths cross.
       Things don't seem so bad, at first. Yes, Herman has trouble sleeping, which definitely impacts him and his work, and Jan takes a few potshots, and Saskia gets turned down for another job, and, yes, petty jealousies and gossip make the rounds, but it all doesn't seem too much beyond what one might usually find in a small town.
       Things take a turn for the worse when Claire insists Herman sell a new batch of his (unfortunately very popular) pâté that he knows is ruined, and when Saskia's grandfather shows up, ready to teach her what's what, and her proper place. As messes mount as a result of these, the police get involved -- there's a charge of indecent exposure, and Wes is involved in an incident with his bicycle --, but these are almost just incidental: the real messes are building up and quickly exploding elsewhere.
       Dehouck quite impressively keeps things going fairly realistically for a long time. Thankfully, the policemen, for example, turn out to be rather sensible, Dehouck not laboring to turn their investigations into comic mistakes (as he easily could have). Among the few forced features is the role of characters going on vacation at inconvenient points -- notably Saskia's social worker.
       Dehouck juggles the stories, characters, and all the overlap very well. Of course, eventually things get out of hand: one breakdown leads to the first murder, and it's all downhill from there -- even as Saskia with her cheery disposition can still believe it will all work out for the best:
She was starting to like it here in Blaashoek, and wanted to hold onto that feeling of living in a safe cocoon. Blaashoek had to become her new home, the place where she could be happy. Then the thought crossed her mind: now that they'd nabbed a murderer here, Blaashoek was safer than ever. There couldn't be two murderers in such a little town, could there she giggled. Out of the question.
       Oh, Saskia, Saskia, Saskia ... naïve little Saskia, with your adorable little dog .....
       The chains of events as catastrophe snowballs are nicely drawn out, but the real appeal of the novel is in the many small links Dehouck has presented. These scenes of small-town life, and the cascading unintended consequences and missteps long feel almost entirely plausible, and Dehouck very effectively moves the stories around among his large cast of characters. It does all get to be a bit much, of course -- the carnage, too -- but this is a very solid little horror tale that shows a nice human touch -- one can sympathize with many of the characters, and even many of their situations -- with just the right amount of black humor.
       Dehouck shows a deft hand in Sleepless Summer, making for an enjoyable though certainly dark tale.

- M.A.Orthofer, 31 May 2019

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Sleepless Summer: Reviews: Bram Dehouck: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Flemish author Bram Dehouck was born in 1978.

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© 2019 the complete review

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