In Tangier, Harry is preparing a birthday dinner for his wife, Robin, when he remembers he has left her present at a local café. When his young son, Dillon, is asleep, Harry rushes out to fetch the present. An earthquake strikes, tearing through the city and destroying buildings, including the home containing his sleeping child. Dillon’s body is never found among the rubble. The verdict: missing, presumed dead.
Five years later we find Harry and a pregnant Robin attempting to start again in Dublin. A new life finally seems attainable — until the day Harry spots Dillon on a crowded street, holding the hand of an unknown woman.
Some novels open with a whimper, others with a bang. “The Innocent Sleep” (Henry Holt, 323 pages, $26) goes for the latter, only to hit the reader again with that masterful aftershock. Such is the crafty set-up from Karen Perry — the pseudonym of Irish authors Karen Gillece and Paul Perry. Other than one chapter near the denouement told from the perspective of a mystery man, the drama unfolds over alternating Harry-Robin first-person accounts. The narrative is full of surprises that constantly, and deliciously, hoodwink the reader.
As drink-fueled Harry loses himself in private amateur sleuthing, the strain of his determination, coupled with his residual guilt, hardens into obsession that alienates him from his wife. The novel becomes a neat cross between a taut thriller and psychological study of a marriage coming apart at the seams. As we flit between viewpoints, we see both characters in revealing lights, their exposed lies and subterfuges and the dirty mess of mutual affairs.
“The Innocent Sleep” is a furious page-turner, one that moves so fast we almost gloss over its flaws. The cliché count is high. Secondary characters are underwritten. And Perry expects the reader to suspend huge dollops of disbelief by having Harry embark on his mission to locate his son without informing his wife that the boy might be alive.
And yet such is the novel’s propulsive current that we end up submerging our quibbles and surrendering to the flow. A stripped-back cast results in intense exchanges and practically claustrophobic set pieces. The dialogue crackles. Best of all is sifting through the evidence and wondering whether frantic, grief-ravaged Harry is blinkered and delusional or on a noble, right-minded quest to reclaim the son he never gave up for dead.
Despite the weighty issues — lost child, marital strife, even the plague that is austerity-hit Ireland — “The Innocent Sleep” is ultimately a light read, but one stuffed with red herrings, wrong turns and seismic revelations, from explosive start right through to outrageous end.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.