Desert Isle Keeper
Are You Sleeping
Are You Sleeping is Kathleen Barber’s debut novel. It’s the story of one woman’s need to make peace with her past, and it’s utterly engrossing.
Josie Burhman has done everything possible to distance herself from her childhood. She’s changed her last name, moved to New York City, and told countless lies to her boyfriend Caleb, all in a misguided attempt to escape her family’s reputation. Her father was murdered thirteen years before the story opens, leaving his wife and twin daughters adrift. Josie’s mother eventually ran off to join a cult, leaving Josie and her sister Lanie in the care of their aunt. Lanie and Josie were once best friends and confidantes, but the loss of both their parents changed all that. Lanie becomes a drug addict and eventually betrays Josie in an unforgivable way. But no matter how hard you try, the past can’t stay buried forever – and Josie is about to find this out.
She begins hearing rumors about a new podcast hosted by investigative reporter Poppy Parnell, a podcast asking way too many questions about Chuck Burhman’s murder. Poppy believes the wrong man was convicted of the crime, and she blames Lanie, the only eye witness. Against her better judgment, Josie listens to the first couple of episodes, and finds herself quite shaken up by what she hears. Is it possible Lanie could have lied all those years ago? Is an innocent man serving time for a crime he didn’t commit? And if so, who is responsible for killing her father?
As if all that isn’t enough, Josie’s cousin Ellen calls to tell her that Erin, Josie’s long-absent mother, has just committed suicide. Ellen begs Josie to return to Illinois for the funeral, and at first, Josie refuses. How would she explain it to Caleb, who thinks both her parents died long ago? But Ellen is persistent, and eventually Josie gives in, telling Caleb she’s attending her aunt’s funeral instead.
Once back in the small town where she grew up, Josie is forced to come face to face with pretty much every facet of the past she’s tried so hard to put behind her. She is reunited with Lanie, who seems to want to make amends – but Josie’s not sure she can be trusted. Lanie’s husband Adam was Josie’s high-school sweetheart, and it’s hard for Josie to see them together, especially when she learns they have a child. In addition, Poppy Parnell is bound and determined to get Josie and her family to share their side of the story on her podcast. And when Caleb shows up against Josie’s wishes, she’s forced to admit to all the lies she’s told him over the years. In short, Josie’s life is unraveling fast.
As Josie does her best to uncover the truth while staying out of Poppy’s way, she learns more than she bargained for about her parents, her sister, and herself. This kind of exploration is always difficult, but it was easy for me as a reader to empathize with Josie’s mixed emotions during this process. I loved that she wanted to know the truth, but I could also understand some of her reluctance to keep digging into things so many people wanted to keep secret.
There are so many characters with obvious motives for killing Chuck Burhman, and Ms. Barber made it impossible for me to guess who the real killer was until the very end of the story. There were a few times I thought I had it figured out, but I was always wrong, and honestly, that’s how I like it. I admire authors who can cleverly craft a mystery as complex as this one.
The author does a great job of exploring the various relationships between her characters. Family dynamics play a big part here, and Ms. Barber has created a cast of deeply flawed individuals who are incredibly life-like. Their dealings with one another aren’t always kind or unselfish, but they are definitely believable.
Most of the story is told from Josie’s point of view, but the author also includes excerpts from Poppy’s podcast. While Poppy’s character was difficult for me to like, I did appreciate the way her journalism was woven into the narrative. The reader is allowed to learn things Josie herself doesn’t know, adding an extra element of suspense to the novel.
Are You Sleeping isn’t the scariest book I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly one of the most compelling. It’s one of those novels I hated to put down, even when real life tasks needed to be performed. If Ms. Barber is capable of creating something this gripping in her very first novel, I can only imagine what her future releases will be like. I’m hoping she won’t make readers wait too long for her next book.