Are You Sleeping

Written by Kathleen Barber

Review written by Judith Sullivan

Judith Sullivan is a writer in Leeds, originally from Baltimore. She is working on a crime series set in Paris. Fluent in French, she’s pretty good with English and has conversational Italian and German. She is working to develop her Yorkshire speak.

Are You Sleeping
Gallery Books
RRP: £12.99
Released: August 10 2017

The strapline on the cover of this book heralds it as “a novel for the Podcast generation.” Not too sure about that but its other reference to Leo Tolstoy did resonate.

Anna Karenina’s opening gambit about unhappy families is name-checked several times and old Leo would’ve had a field day with this bunch.

Nobody in the Buhrman family chucks himself under a train but the Buhrmans do ratchet up the old misery stakes. Chuck Buhrman was murdered, his in-laws killed in a car crash and another Buhrman meets a grisly end over the course of Sleeping. For good measure, Barber throws in abandonment, jealousy and a creepy cult.

Sleeping employs a dual-strand narrative, one from the perspective of Josie Buhrman, daughter of the 2002 murder victim Chuck. The second is the famous podcast, pulpishly written by one Poppy Parnell and slavishly followed by a bunch of folks who really should know better.

Josie becomes aware of the podcast in 2015 where 13 years on from her father’s death, she has rebuilt her life with an assumed name in New York. Most readers would forgive Josie (now Jo Borden – that last name is no coincidence) for being an underachiever considering the back story. She does okay, working in a bookstore and living with the laid-back Kiwi do-gooder Caleb Perlman.

The podcast is horrible - in fact it’s utter tosh appealing very much to the bottom-feeders of the world. It’s understandable that it gets under Jo/Josie’s skin. The content upsets her as does the risk the material might tip off the lovely Caleb as to her real background.  

An aid worker is conveniently out of the country when the events kick off, but of course, he gets wind of things; and in so doing complicates matters to no end for poor old Jo. His anger at being duped for years is just one element in a witches’ brew plot simmering with sibling rivalry, old hurts and general mistrust.

Jo/Josie is a well-drawn character and I had no trouble believing her obsession about keeping the past in the past, even in relation to the amiable boyfriend. There, sadly, the characterization strengths ended for me. The sister and cousin and aunt of Josie all struck me as one-dimensional with not a lot to do other than move the Josie bits of the plot forward; that being said, the plot and the unravelling of what really happened 13 years ago is deftly handled. I guessed who the killer was, before the reveal. But Barber does do some twisty-turnings with the unravelling that keep one reading and guessing.

Sadly, Barber also asks the reader to accept a few credulity-straining devices. In particular, Jo is terrified her boyfriend will discover her true back story via the podcast and that fear sets some of the action in motion. Which is fine, but hard to believe as these people are in their late 20s. They should be among the strapline’s “podcast generation” but also the Facebook, Instagram and other confessional-site generation. Jo appears to have been with Caleb for several years and he never seems to fret she’s not introduced him to family or college roommates or places she’s lived. She has even visited his family in South Island but he buys that everybody on her side is dead. She does mention that her tangled web of lies just got more and more tangled but I found it hard to believe the guy was not more curious about the woman he loves.

The podcast bits of the plot also rang false for me. Maybe I am just too old and not podcast savvy enough but the passions it stirs and the flurry of responses it elicits took me aback. Then again, maybe people do wake up every morning thinking – “Next instalment, please? Some more gore, sir?”  - These guys would be advised to read a book, occasionally, and this one would be a pretty good one - podcast generation or no podcast generation.

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