Alistair Morgan: Sleeper’s Wake (5 stars)

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Alistair Morgan: Sleeper’s Wake

This is a breathtaking debut novel from a young South African writer which asks deep questions about grief, pain, love and life, and does so in a story that is almost unbearably tense and fraught with unspoken, complicated emotions, yet is also wonderfully, bleakly comic in its execution. From the first line we enter the utterly compelling world of Cape Town resident John Wraith, a middle-aged man who regains consciousness after a car crash which killed his wife and young daughter. His painkiller-fuelled confusion is exacerbated by the fact there was no apparent cause for the crash, during which he was at the wheel.

When he goes to the unspoilt coast of Nature’s Valley to recuperate, he encounters a family recovering from their own horrors – devoutly religious father Roelf, 17-year-old daughter Jackie and younger brother Simon. John’s relationship with Jackie is a deeply unsettling and confused mesh of fatherly protectiveness and sexual impulses, a relationship that drags the reader squirming and screaming towards a remarkably powerful climax, a morally ambiguous cauldron of seething hatred, bare violence and extreme passion.

All of which is achieved in a mere 179 pages of clear, precise prose, in which not a word or punctuation mark is wasted. The complex nature of John’s grief (for his family, his way of life, himself) is brilliantly evoked between the lines, as is the quicksand of his feelings for Jackie, in an evocative, brave, honest and simply stunning novel that stays with the reader long after the last page is turned.

(Granta)

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