A review of Asleep Without Dreaming by Barbara Forte Abate

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Asleep Without Dreaming
by Barbara Forte Abate
Halcyon Moon Press
2012, ISBN 978-0615685489

Asleep Without Dreaming, by Barbara Forte Abate, is an atmospheric novel, full of foreboding, about a tragic young love affair. Set during the Kennedy administration, the story opens with a mother and her fourteen year old daughter on a fly-by-night journey from Hoosick Falls, somewhere in the north eastern U.S.A. The name “Hoosick” suggests the question, “Who’s sick?” and the answer is, “Most of the characters except for fourteen year old Willa.”

A failed radiator hose forces them to take temporary refuge several hundred miles from home, at the Moonglow Cottages near the town of Harriet’s Bluff. Omega Pearl, owner of this motel, rents them a cottage and hires Stella as housekeeper/cleaner. Omega’s injured leg is a result of being frightened in the night by the escaped killer Norman Hitchcock peeking through her window. A local man, Hitchcock shot two men in cold blood. “He’s on the loose and looking for revenge,” says Omega.

The killer on the loose contributes to the novel’s gloom and unease. Where so much is awry, we are not surprised to learn that a septic system is leaking into the lake, and that the river is polluted. Abate’s skilfully worded descriptions add to the grim atmosphere:

Despite the bright sunlight and assumed tranquillity of the wide stretch of shimmering water, it [the Moonglow’s setting] is a decidedly dreary place,” writes Abate, “an extinct ghost town that by all appearances has never been anything but. Rather than serving to create a sense of peaceful solitude the surrounding forest of towering pines instead lends a grievous depth of gloom and loneliness. There is nothing here of colour. The remains of a dock are visible at water’s edge, one crippled edge jutting skyward, the opposite corner melted into water.

Abate presents the novel from Willa’s point of view in the third person. Willa’s thoughts are well-expressed but occasionally repetitive when the author says the same thing, rephrased, twice in a paragraph. We read, for instance, that Willa’s “sentiments towards the mysterious Norman Hitchcock are altogether similar to those she has for everyone else in Harriet’s Bluff; which is to say there’s no one who hold any particular significance to the grand scheme of her life.” Fine. Then we are told, unnecessarily: “She has no connection to any of them, past, present or future, the town and its inhabitants no more substantial to her interests or affections than a colony of cardboard cutouts.”

Willa frequently thinks about her early life, in flashbacks not always clearly distinguished from the present of the novel. In Chapter Eight, a “regal old house” which burned to the ground reminds Willa of Omega’s tale that a murder took place in it. Then, after this conversation is recreated, Willa shifts back further in time to a childhood memory of hanging out in a similar deserted old house in Hoosick Falls. A flashback within a flashback tends to disorient readers. Sometimes one longs for more chronological order. Willa’s childhood hideway is important to the plot, however, because it is like another character’s retreat, a riverside shack near Harriet’s Bluff. Their shared need to escape to deserted buildings shows that they are birds of a feather.

The incidents of arson in Harriet’s Bluff “mesmerize” and “captivate” Willa. Townsfolk blame Norman Hitchcock, whom nobody ever sees. Jesse Truman, Omega’s teenaged handyman, tells Willa that the pyromaniac is just seeking attention and never burns an inhabited building. Eagerness for Norman’s appearance “in scene” keeps us reading.

Dramatic tension and reader interest are stirred by revelations about Stella. In flashbacks and in the present action of the novel, she emerges as a self-centred, bitter, thieving whore who hates her own daughter. She parallels another horrible parent in the story. Jesse urges Willa not to waste emotional energy trying to understand her, as some things in life just can’t be understood.

Willa’s budding romance with Jesse keeps us reading in the hope that they will find happiness together. His frequent disappearances, Stella’s prurient comments, and Omega’s information about his dysfunctional family, along with the over-all hopeless atmosphere, suggest no happily-ever-after. The ending comes as a shock, until we realize that it has been well foreshadowed.

Asleep Without Dreaming is not an enjoyable read, but it is a compelling one which shows the author’s considerable talent.

Ruth Latta’s novel, The Old Love and the New Love (Ottawa, Canada, Baico, 2012) is available at baico@bellnet.ca. For information about reviewer Ruth Latta’s writing, please visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com.