Sunday 21 March 2010

Book review : Sleepless - Charlie Huston

I came to this book with absolutely no preconceptions, not having heard of the book or the author, but the title instantly made me think of Sleepless in Seattle. Well, you can forget that right away - this book is anything but a romantic comedy ! From briefly reading the blurb on the back of the book, I was expecting a relatively classic crime thriller - LAPD cop, working undercover posing as a drug dealer in LA - but again, right from the opening pages, I knew this supposition was way off the mark.

The setting may be Los Angeles in 2010 but it is an unrecognisable world, an apocalyptic parallel universe. You could just imagine Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger striding out of the smoke and flames on the big screen and looking around at the chaos. This lawless, anarchic, crumbling city is an image of what is happening the world over, due to a pandemic of SLP, that leaves people unable to sleep, ever, and leads to certain death. We learn that scientists initially thought the Sleeplessness was a mutated form of Mad Cow disease or CJD or BSE so the reader has to uneasily admit that this could happen. One pharmaceutical company has created a drug, cleverly called DR33M3R (dreamer), that is unable to cure the disease but does allow people to actually have something resembling sleep for a few hours or, if taken in large quantities, gives them the opportunity to end their life and avoid the suffering by bringing on a sleep they will never wake from. But there isn't enough to go round and Park, undercover LA cop, is getting deeply involved in the corruption and vicious murders surrounding this black market trade.

A few months ago, I read and reviewed a book by Carla Buckley called The Things That Keep Us Here, which tells the chilling tale of a family's struggle to stay alive in America after the bird flu pandemic turns nasty. The same questions arise of how far will people go to protect their loved ones and how will people react on the streets in times of international disaster and, although Carla Buckley's novel focused on the plight of one family unit, barricaded inside their home, the brief glimpses of life across town and across the state borders remind me very much of the scenes of carnage in Sleepless.

As you'd expect, the main character needs to be personally involved in this disaster and we learn that Park's wife is sleepless and possibly also his infant daughter. Maybe it's because I'm a mum myself but I actually found the scenes of Park's wife unable to care for their baby daughter and not remembering her life with her husband more poignant and unsettling than the bloody murders and hit squads running riot outside their home. I felt that Park's emotional attachment to his family wasn't portrayed enough - he seems detached and distant, calling in a babysitter and going off to work as usual. For me, this prevented me from really empathising with him and caring wholeheartedly about what happened to him and his loved ones.

I thought the whole "virtual world" aspect was very clever. As real life goes to pieces, people seek refuge and solace in an online game called Chasm Tide where the characters they create and control can live out the life that is no longer accessible to them in reality. Virtual artefacts within the game end up with more value than hard cash. Sleepless victims may die but their virtual alter-egos can live on.

Although I loved the basic plotline, I found the book overcomplicated and hard to really get into. In every chapter, we change viewpoint and narrative voice, flipping between Park in the first person, Park in the third person and an ageing hitman called Jasper - although I didn't actually realise this for quite some time until I started looking at a few reviews to see what other people were thinking of the the book. The different voices, and indeed characters, aren't defined enough and it's difficut to keep track of who is talking or to really empathise with any of them.

I did enjoy the final chapters but thought that it was a lot of hard work getting there and, ultimately, I didn't really care about any of the characters enough to be particularly bothered about the final outcome of their lives. I'm sure that if I read it all over again, paying more attention to the different narrative voices, I'd enjoy it more the second time around, but it's too dark, depressing and joyless for me to want to put in the time and effort. I could definitely see the storyline being made into a Hollywood blockbuster though !

star rating : 3/5

RRP : £12.99
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Orion (1 April 2010)
ISBN-10: 1409114996
ISBN-13: 978-1409114994

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