Translated by Jamie Bulloch — Dear Child, Romy Hausmann’s debut which was published in English last year, proved to be a breath of fresh air for the stale psychological noir sub-genre of mainstream crime fiction. It subverted the tired clichés and tropes while at the same time satisfying our desire for complex plot twists, unreliable narrators and unlikely motives. Sleepless, with its premise of a vulnerable protagonist framed for murder, and a double narrative which moves backwards and forwards through time, promises more of the same. But can it deliver?
Nadja Kulka works in Berlin as the assistant to a successful criminal lawyer, Gero von Hoven. She thinks of her boss as a good man and knows she’s lucky to have such a job. However, years ago she was convicted of a cruel crime. The nature of her crime isn’t revealed until near the end of the book, but Hausmann drops in enough of a narrative link for us to understand Nadja’s predicament. So when Gero’s wife Laura comes to Nadja begging for her help, she doesn’t hesitate and agrees. After all, Laura is her friend… or so she thinks.
The women go to Laura’s home and Nadja finds the corpse of an athletic young man. A lovers tiff that accidentally got out of hand, Laura explains. Affecting helplessness, Laura explains she can’t tell the police it was an accident. Gero is a jealous man who will use his knowledge of the law to ruin her life. Nadja finds herself suggesting a plan to make the body disappear and offers to move it to the von Hoven’s holiday property in the trunk of her car. Then they can dispose of it later. And so, the trap is sprung.
Five years earlier, Nelly Schutt, a young woman in the prime of her life, works on reception at her parent’s country inn. The job is dull, and Nelly is aware of her life being wasted. She dreams of adventure and romance, and the closest she comes to these is her endless re-watching of her grandfather’s old black and white Hollywood films on a VHS player. She begins an ill-advised affair with a married travelling salesman, and out of desperation or naivety, or both, follows him back to the city to confront him after his wife had learnt of their affair and presented him with an ultimatum. The husband is out when Nelly visits, and her conversation with his wife will have lasting tragic consequences.
For large parts of the narrative, the connection between both stories, of which I would say Nadja’s is the principal one, remains obscure. Could Nadja and Nelly be the same woman, you’ll wonder? I’m sure Hausmann wants her readers to consider this. When the connection is finally revealed, it feels underwhelming, and I was left wondering about the need for the second narrative at all…
There are great moments in Sleepless, particularly the scenes at the villa, as the double- and triple-crosses are revealed, but I felt Hausmann’s previously unerring compass has led her astray. The balance between intrigue and reader confusion is not correct, and large parts of the book will leave you frustrated. It’s possible that if I hadn’t read Dear Child, and known what a good writer Hausmann is, I might have given up on this book. Here’s hoping her next one finds her back on form.
If you like the sound of Sleepless, Dear Child, and domestic noir in general, why look at Barry Forshaw’s list of the best recent novels in that sub-genre?
CFL Rating: 3 Stars