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The Sleepwalkers by Scarlett Thomas review – fiendishly gripping

The Sleepwalkers by Scarlett Thomas review – fiendishly gripping

Before the reader begins Scarlett Thomas’s fantastically gripping new novel, it’s clear that this is a story – several versions, in fact – of catastrophe, its contents page a dossier of evidence. Letters, audio transcripts, drawings, photographs, pages torn from a hotel guestbook, and a confession: The Sleepwalkers is the tattered, singed and bloodstained scrapbook of a disaster.

As the narrative opens, Richard and Evelyn are honeymooning on the Greek island of Kathos at the exquisite hotel Villa Rosa, run by the mysterious and bohemian young widow Isabella. Doors at the Villa Rosa are left unlocked; so far, so idyllic – except that on the far side of the island is a squalid refugee camp, and the newlyweds’ union is clearly, from the outset, a seething mess of dark sexual secrets and lies.

Evelyn is our principal narrator, through a series of letters to her husband and mother-in-law, and describes the marriage as “cursed” on page one. The couple arrive on Kathos with Richard’s best friend, Paul, whom Evelyn clearly fancies more than her husband, and his “rubbery sex-doll” girlfriend Beth. Add to that a social mismatch – Richard is a public school City trader, Evelyn an actor turned screenwriter who started out as his parents’ housekeeper – and the fact that Evelyn’s writing career is in freefall. Even without the forecast of a huge storm, we would be primed for disaster.

The Villa Rosa, too, soon turns out to be far from the paradise advertised: its quirkily charming decor conceals sinister clues, the local “help” – lewd gardener Kostas, dropout Christos, barefoot dogsbody Hamza – are evasive at best, and increasingly openly hostile, and its promise of the simple life is a lie. Communications disappear, doors are locked “for your own protection”, and conversations are monitored.

Nor are Richard and Evelyn the first couple to hit the rocks at the Villa Rosa. The sleepwalkers of the novel’s title were two previous guests, the Border-Kearneys – he “troubled” after finding God; she researching a travel piece – who, according to local reports, walked into the sea while asleep and drowned the year before the main narrative begins.

Then Evelyn discovers that Isabella (whose free-spiritedness, she notes, mostly consists in her not wearing underwear and flirting breathily with Richard) has written a screenplay based on the drowned couple’s story and that a Hollywood producer is on his way to meet her. The toxic brew of resentments and terrible secrets comes to the boil just as the weather breaks, and it isn’t only the beach that is washed away.

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: the sleepwalking wife, on a visit to the island’s refugee camp, says it reminds her “of Glastonbury, without the crying babies”, and when Evelyn, on the phone to a producer, tells her that she’s in a hospice car park, the woman’s response is: “Oh gosh, how fascinating.”

Thomas’s foundation stone is a peerlessly deft and nuanced skill at creating character, from the manipulative Isabella to the weak, snobbish, pampered Richard, clinging to redemption by a shred of honest instinct. But it is Evelyn on whose believability the novel rests, and she is a masterly creation: prickly, insecure, self-dramatising; an overthinker, at once sly and prone to blurting out truths; a zigzagger, a back-tracker, in flight from her own damage, lustful and with a hopelessly thwarted capacity for love. As a writer, Evelyn is also the ultimate unreliable narrator, and Thomas must carry off that fiendishly difficult trick of making her evasions and exaggerations visible while allowing them the power to deceive, and eventually, haltingly, guiding her towards revelation. Clever, emotionally resonant, packed with startling twists and dark turns and very funny indeed, this is fiction roaring on all cylinders.

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Source: theguardian.com