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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Sleepwalkers

Scarlett Thomas

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To purchase The Sleepwalkers

Title: The Sleepwalkers
Author: Scarlett Thomas
Genre: Novel
Written: 2024
Length: 289 pages
Availability: The Sleepwalkers - US
The Sleepwalkers - UK
The Sleepwalkers - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B : dark and engaging, but a great deal heaped together

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A+ 6/4/2024 Christobel Kent
The NY Times Book Rev. . 6/4/2024 Flynn Berry
The Observer A 16/4/2024 Alison Flood
The Spectator A- 13/4/2024 Boyd Tonkin

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Sleepwalkers is the tattered, singed and bloodstained scrapbook of a disaster. (...) Thomas is a writer who provides practically every satisfaction a reader demands. The plot structure is ingenious and demanding without being onerous. She has an unerring ability to conjure atmosphere -- the tension on the island, even in the first pages, is palpable. The novel is also a wickedly funny satire of privileged obliviousness (.....) Clever, emotionally resonant, packed with startling twists and dark turns and very funny indeed, this is fiction roaring on all cylinders." - Christobel Kent, The Guardian

  • "The central mystery of the novel seems to be what happened at Evelyn and Richard’s wedding to send them into such turmoil. Except the story crackles with little distortions (.....) So is this a ghost story, or a time loop, or a memory play ? For Thomas, nothing seems to be off the table. She shifts between erotic thrills, gothic drama, postmodern deconstruction and kitchen-sink realism. (...) Reading The Sleepwalkers, I was wrong about so much; I wasn’t even looking in the right direction, and that process of disorientation felt corrective and necessary." - Flynn Berry, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(I)t’s a lot of fun trying to work out the truth of what’s happened, and I’m not sure I ever really got there, but that didn’t remotely affect my enjoyment of this clever thriller. (...) This isn’t too experimental, it’s just dark enough, and I highly recommend it." - Alison Flood, The Observer

  • "Thomas insistently and cleverly shows that a novel can do what a series screenplay can’t, or won’t. (...) Thomas makes entertaining mischief with some familiar motifs. (...) Thomas tells her story with the craft and cunning of an Aegean sorceress. (...) (S)he can make metafiction not just smart but fun. Once more she earns her place in a postwar British canon of playfully serious mavericks that runs from Muriel Spark and Brigid Brophy to Nicola Barker and Ali Smith." - Boyd Tonkin, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A list of contents at the beginning of The Sleepwalkers alerts readers what they will find here -- how this novel is presented --, beginning with two letters and including some notes and an audio transcript, among other items. The pieces are then also of very varying length, with the opening one, a letter, already taking up more than a hundred pages; the 'Contents'-list also notes that many of the items are in some way damaged ("scuff marks, rain damage", etc.), and some of the pieces are outright fragmentary; notably, then, many end mid-sentence ("You can't interrupt now, or explode when" ...).
       This first letter is written by Evelyn -- Evie --, explaining to husband Richard why she is abandoning him on their honeymoon. It's fall, 2022, already off-season, with Richard and Evie having come to the Villa Rosa on a Greek island -- the honeymoon spot chosen and paid for by Richard's mother. Evie quickly suggests some of the problems they were having -- mentioning: "that moment at our wedding when we both knew -- but never actually said -- that our love was forever cursed", and a woman who clearly came between them: "Isabella. I find it so hard to write her name". (Richard concurs, that it was a: "terrible wedding", and Isabella, who runs the Villa Rosa, is certainly presented as a constant sore point between them). Even the stars seem to have been aligned against them, an astrological chart Evie had commissioned was nothing less than: "horrific" ("'A hopeless relationship' is one of the lines I particularly remember").)
       The two don't seem ideally matched -- and as more is revealed about them, and their relationship, it becomes ever-clearer that there's more baggage here than anyone could be expected to overcome -- a lot more baggage, as it turns out.
       Still young, Evie has already had a hell of an arc -- "from housekeeper with an MA in Theatre Studies and a script for a one-woman show to fringe-sensation with my own TV series to washed-up failure in a period of just over six years", and the honeymoon isn't just a romantic getaway: she's trying to get some writing done, trying to get her career back on track again. Among the chapters then is one where Evie sketches: 'Plan/synopsis/something for play #3'.
       The creepy hotel suggests some material -- not least the υπνοβάτες: "the 'sleepwalkers,' a married couple who'd drowned in that part of the sea the year before". Just the place to honeymoon ..... The sleepwalkers, and their story, certainly haunt the place, adding to the dark atmosphere. The rare other visitors that come into the mix are film producers, interested in Isabella's story of the sleepwalkers -- though as one of them tells Evie and Richard: "I feel like this might actually be a story about you two" ....
       Isabella insists the hotel is completely safe -- and makes some to-do that: "You must leave this door unlocked overnight" -- but quite a bit of locking-up goes on, including Richard complaining that he doesn't even know the password to Evie's laptop, wondering: "Why do you always lock me out of everything ? Always with your little cordoned-off areas and setting your phone to make sure it doesn't ever preview any of your messages on the home screen". Even Evie seems a bit foggy on what she is keeping hidden -- from Richard, and even from herself -- but a lot emerges, and Villa Rosa, with its own dark secrets, is not the ideal place for all that to unfold. Ill-fated from the start, the honeymoon lives up to all its (bad) expectations (complete with atmospheric storming at the appropriate times).
       Early on already, Evie writes to Richard that: "everything I say I will imagine you disagreeing with, saying. 'It wasn't like that' or 'You're not being fair'" and of course the reader wonders what can be believed. A nice touch is a chapter presented as an audio transcript, complete with mis-transcriptions ("I Moscow" for 'I must go', and the like); often telling ones: "You wreck on ?" Evie asks; or: "I can't hear you properly through the war" (for 'wall') she tells Richard (who, at another point, admits what could stand for a whole lot more: "I don't understand"). The difficulty of communication as simply a physical issue comes up very often, as not only are many of the pieces here incomplete or cut off, but several times Evie leaves a note or letter for Richard and he doesn't find it.
       Evie is eventually told: "You gotta make it clearer what actually happened", but Thomas tells a story that can't be neatly spelled out; when one character says: "It's more complicated than that", it applies to much more of this many-multilayered tale -- though, yes, it's fair to sum up as one character does: "What really happened is no good".
       The shadows of other characters looms large over Richard and Evie's story, including of course the dead couple from the previous year, but also friend Paul -- who accompanies Richard and Evie on the first part of their honeymoon -- and, especially, Richard's parents. It's a lot loaded up into the story -- more than enough already before they've reached Villa Rosa, with that and the goings-on there, past and present, compounding and complicating everything considerably more. Neatly structured, Thomas' nightmare vision is unfolded for the reader quite cleverly -- though hardly straightforwardly (there are a lot of folds ...) --, a dark literary game. It is certainly always engaging, along the way, and plays out interestingly, but is perhaps not entirely satisfying in what remains un(der)explored and unexplained (as there is, and was, so much going on here, past and present).

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 April 2024

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The Sleepwalkers: Reviews: Scarlett Thomas: Other books by Scarlett Thomas under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       English author Scarlett Thomas was born in 1972.

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© 2024 the complete review

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