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On The Shelf: ‘Are You Sleeping’ by Kathleen Barber

‘Sup readers? Welcome back to an early edition  On The Shelf, Fan Fest’s premiere book review column. Each week, I find new literature (traditionally published or otherwise) and read it for the explicit purpose of helping you decide whether it’s good enough to claim prime shelf real estate, or if it’s better-suited to be an ereader purchase. Since this column is subjective (meaning everything following is my opinion, and should be regarded as such), I am by no means claiming to be the authority on what constitutes a “good” book. There have been a few times when I’ve admitted something I wasn’t wowed by will otherwise thrill most people, and something I liked probably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and even one instance where I couldn’t recommend a book at all.

This week’s read is a twisty psychological thriller, Are You Sleeping, by debut author Kathleen Barber. Are You Sleeping (named after the children’s lullaby) has a markedly modern slant, echoing award-winning podcast Serial and utilizing well-known websites (Slate) and social media platforms (Reddit, Twitter) to help tell the story.

Are You Sleeping centers around the (fictional) murder of college professor Chuck Buhrman at the hands of his 17-year-old neighbour, Warren Cave. It’s been considered “solved” for nearly two decades, but when an inquisitive podcaster reopens the case and her podcast, Reconsidered, becomes a runaway sensation, the victim’s daughter, Josie, is forced to confront the past she’s been running from for half of her life. Josie knows this podcast is ridiculous; her twin sister, Lanie, saw Warren Cave in their home all those years ago. She saw Warren Cave shoot their father in the back of the head. She saw.

But Josie and Lanie haven’t spoken since they were teenagers; after their father’s murder, their mother abandoned them to join a cult; Lanie dove, headfirst, into the escapism of drugs and alcohol; and Josie, left out in the cold, tried to hold the scraps of their family together until it became apparent there was nothing worth holding onto— she ran away and started a new life, as one does: changing her name, falling in love, and getting a job at a bookstore. Josephine Buhrman became Josie Borden. Josephine Buhrman is a girl with a horrific, unimaginable past and a drug-addled, manipulative sister who has betrayed Josephine again and again. Josie Borden is an only child; her parents “died in a car crash” when she was young, and none of her lies have ever caught up with her.

Then she learns about Reconsidered,  her cousin calls to tell her that her cult-bound mother has committed suicide, and she heads home to face her past, in that order. The journey home makes it painfully clear that no matter what she changes her name to, or how she spins her backstory, Josie Borden has always and will always be Josephine Buhrman , the daughter of a murder victim. The daughter of a cult member. The sister of a drug addict. And no matter how hard she tries to outrun her past, it is always keeping pace with her, just waiting for her to turn around and look. Look. Listening to Reconsidered forces Josie to relive the worst night of her life, but it also casts suspicion on Lanie— she saw the murder, there’s no doubt about that, but what did she actually see?

Okay, let’s get this out of the way right now. I liked Are You Sleeping a lot, having paired the ebook with the audiobook to take advantage of its unique format (bouncing back and forth between Josie’s POV in the third person, podcast transcripts, and chatter on the interwebs); I was engaged throughout the story and appreciated the way Barber weaved together not only a murder mystery, but a domestic drama. I wasn’t expecting the ending, and I would reread it based on the “family drama” aspect alone (usually, rereading mysteries doesn’t happen unless I’ve forgotten the ending).

I also really, really appreciated Josie as our  main character. Too often with contemporary thrillers, it’s seen as chic to write an unreliable narrator, someone who is either suffering from mental illness, addiction, serious sleep deprivation, or a combination of the three. Josie is pleasantly steady and her actions and reactions stayed consistent throughout, a true rarity in the genre these days.

Another thing I have to give Barber props for is her choice to examine Lanie’s drug addiction not through Lanie’s eyes, but from Josie’s perspective. I don’t see a lot of books that have the balls to be honest about the trials and tribulations of living with a family member who’s an addict and, despite the maddening destruction they cause and the pain they inflict, loving them unconditionally.

And then there’s Poppy Parnell, podcaster/wannabe investigative journalist. Listen: contrary to the court of public opinion, journalists (real, educated journalists with real, tangible post-secondary degrees) are taught to be respectful of people, especially regarding tragedies, no matter if they happened yesterday or 10 years ago, because you are dealing with real people who experienced real trauma. It’s constantly enforced that no matter how badly you want a story, you can’t just bulldoze it out of someone. When you have a story, when you figure out something in the milk ain’t clean, you have to be thorough, make sure you get it right.

Poppy Parnell doesn’t give a sh*t about any of that. She consistently exploits the Buhrman  sisters’ tragedies (the murder of their father and the death of their mother) for the sake of her salacious podcast. She is a genuine villain. It’s been awhile since I’ve wanted a book’s antagonist to be run over by a bus (usually that Regina George-esque fate is hoped upon stupid protagonists); Poppy is a loathsome weasel, and I wanted someone to punch her in the face, at the very least. Maybe knock out a few teeth.

On The Shelf: 'Are You Sleeping' by Kathleen Barber

Ugh. Ugh. I need to shake off the bad, Poppy-inspired vibes (seriously, though, props to Barber for making me hate a fictional character).

Overall, this was a tightly-written, addictive novel. I absolutely think this belongs on the shelf, and I’ll eagerly be awaiting Barber’s next book. If Are You Sleeping intrigues you, you can purchase a copy here.

On The Shelf Rating: 4 creepy children’s lullabies out of 5.