Someone might be getting away with murder in Romy Hausmann’s novel, Sleepless, an ambitious cat-and-mouse thriller, about guilt, coercive control, social inequality, retribution and justice.
It’s over, my angel. Today I’m going to die. Just like her. He’s won.
It’s been years since Nadja Kulka was convicted of a cruel crime. After being released from prison, she’s wanted nothing more than to live a normal life: nice flat, steady job, even a few friends. But when one of those friends, Laura von Hoven – free-spirited beauty and wife of Nadja’s boss – kills her lover and begs Nadja for her help, Nadja can’t seem to be able to refuse.
The two women make for a remote house in the woods, the perfect place to bury a body. But their plan quickly falls apart and Nadja finds herself outplayed, a pawn in a bizarre game in which she is both the perfect victim and the perfect murderer . . .
I’m going to begin this review by saying that I was in a perpetual state of befuddlement for the first 100 or so pages of Sleepless. I’m also pretty sure that was Romy Hausmann’s intention. It mirrors the gaps in a character’s recollection of events or confusion felt as to what’s happening to them, while also feeding into the unsettling and pervasive sense of instability and imbalance felt throughout the novel.
There are three strands to the story in Sleepless that we switch between: there’s the present-day involvement of Nadja Kulka with her former colleague and friend, Laura, who’s married to Nadja’s boss, Herr von Hoven. (It’s probably worth mentioning here that Nadja is attempting to make a fresh start after being released from prison and that she suffers from panic attacks and is on medication.) Then there’s the case of Nelly Schütt, a young woman who was murdered five years earlier. And, interspersed between these two stories, there are anonymous letters from an unspecified time and author which pre-date both.
Romy Hausmann plays mind games with her characters and reader alike, wrong-footing us all and making us feel as if we’re on that precipice of hers, about to fall, or that everything we’ve carefully constructed so far – be they friendships, relationships, family, career, home life, our personal history/mythology – is about to come toppling down around us. You’re going to have to go with this until things start to come into focus and you begin to see the connections between the three strands of the novel and the characters involved. And if you don’t want to do that, this might not be the book for you. (Although, personally, I think it’s well worth sticking around while Romy Hausmann brings the various threads together, as well as being there for the end payoff.)
I knew that I was in a safe pair of hands with this translation from the German original, Marta schläft (trs. Marta sleeps), because Jamie Bulloch was also responsible for translating Dear Child, Romy Hausmann’s first book to appear in English last year, which I reviewed here.
Having read and enjoyed Dear Child, I was happy to go along with not knowing what the heck was going on initially, constantly feeling as if I’d missed something and flipping back to find that I hadn’t. Every time I read a phrase or noticed an action that echoed or referenced something a character had said or done, felt like a personal triumph and, slowly but surely, I could begin to get a grip on who everyone was and piece together (or at least speculate on!) how their lives might intersect.
Needless to say, Romy Hausmann still managed to keep some surprises up her authorial sleeve that I did not see coming and it was exciting, and also sometimes exasperating (in terms of the characters’ actions), to see how these played out, and whether it would end as the characters calculated or as I imagined or hoped it would. Sleepless was an intensely involving read, one which had me on tenterhooks for Nadja, and at times for Laura. It made me cry out at the injustice and abuse of power exercised, but also gave me a satisfying ending (including a nice nod to the book’s original title) which made me feel as if we had closure and ended up where we were meant to be. I can only recommend you read it.
Sleepless by Romy Hausmann is translated from the German, Marta schläft, by Jamie Bulloch and published by Quercus. It’s available as an audiobook and ebook and in hardback with the paperback due out in early December. You can find it at Amazon UK (affiliate link), Bookshop.org, Hive and Waterstones. For Romy Hausmann info, check out her Facebook Page or follow her on Instagram.
Thanks to Joe Christie at Quercus for providing a review copy via NetGalley.