The Sleepwalkers by Scarlett Thomas: Cliffhanging to the end

Cover image for The Sleepwalkers by Scarlett ThomasScarlett Thomas is an idiosyncratic writer several of whose novels I’ve enjoyed, not least the slightly bonkers The Seed Collectors. I was a little disappointed in her last novel but was keen to read The Sleepwalkers when I spotted it on NetGalley. It follows a newly married couple who’ve been booked into a hotel on a small Greek Island as a wedding present and find themselves the only guests at the end of the season.

Those last days. Our last days together. I will always treasure them, even though they were so very tainted.

Evie and Richard have rearranged their wedding to accommodate his mother’s gift, having spent the first week of their honeymoon with friends in one of the island’s cheap hotels. As they arrive at the Villa Rosa, Evie spots the ‘beautiful boy’ she’s seen around the island, sitting with two men and several other young people in the hotel garden. When they check in, Isabella, the hotelier, greets Richard warmly, almost flirtatiously, but gives Evie the cold shoulder. Richard encourages Evie to take advantage of the hotel’s quiet tranquillity, setting off on his run while she writes. There’s a shadow hanging over their marriage, a revelation made at the wedding which has made them both feel their relationship is doomed, a feeling not helped by the discovery that another couple, guests at the hotel, had drowned recently, one attempting to save the other who slept walked into the sea. As they try to enjoy their beautiful surroundings, Evie becomes increasingly resentful of Isabella’s attentions to Richard, noticing small, disconcerting details about the hotel. When two other guests turn up, interested in turning the sleepwalkers’ story into a movie, things take a decidedly odd turn.

It’s such an incredible tale, Issy. And amazing that the wife happened to tell her entire life story to you on the day before she drowned.  

I’m wary of saying too much about this gripping novel which plays with the thriller genre, leaving its readers handing on by their fingertips. Thomas presents her story as a series of documents – letters, transcripts, notebook pages – some written by Evie, some by Richard, others by hotel guests – several fragmented. Evie is a particularly pleasing unreliable narrator and it’s her letters that make up the bulk of the story, small bombshells let off as she tries to piece together what happened to the sleepwalkers and why, while telling us about her own life. Pieces of the puzzle slot into place as we read the other documents some of which leave the reader with yet more questions. The overarching theme is a serious one but there’s a playfulness with which Thomas unfolds her story, while keeping its tension taut right up until the end. I thoroughly enjoyed this clever, smartly constructed novel but I’ve a feeling it may be Marmite for some readers.

Scribner: London 9781398528406 320 pages Hardback (read Via NetGalley)

16 thoughts on “The Sleepwalkers by Scarlett Thomas: Cliffhanging to the end”

  1. I’m not terribly good at ‘slightly bonkers’, but this one doesn’t seem to fit that description. There’s only one way to find out which side of this particular Marmite debate I fit.

  2. I do like an epistolary novel! I need to try Thomas again; I only know The Seed Collectors and Oligarchy. I’d be liable to get this one confused with The Sleep Watcher.

  3. I read The End of Mr. Y and thought it was an interesting combination of elements too. It must have been on the women’s fiction prizelist or something (then, the Orange Prize, of course).

  4. jenniferbeworr

    This sounds so worthwhile, Susan. I like that it is maybe more idiosyncratic. I had heard the name, Scarlett Thomas, but not read anything by her. I’ll remember about this one.

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