The Sleeper by Gillian White

the sleeperWhen the snow lay round about…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Christmas at Southdown Farm is always an uncomfortable time for Clover Moon, since her disapproving mother-in-law Violet comes visiting. But this year’s even worse than usual. Firstly, Clover has realised she’s deeply unhappy with her life and is in a permanent state of rage. And secondly, someone appears to be trying to hurt her, perhaps even kill her. Clover is sure that Violet has finally lost her senses and become dangerous. Meantime Miss Bates, a resident of the nearby Happy Haven home for the elderly, has disappeared. As the worst snow for decades continues to fall, the farm is cut off without phone or electricity and fears for Miss Bates’ safety grow…

Each Gillian White book seems to be stylistically different to the others. There are some things that do link them – the excellent quality of the writing, the creation of rather quirky characters, good if sometimes far-fetched plotting and an undercurrent of humour, though that shows up more in some than in others. This book has all of those things. White’s description of the isolated snowbound farm is chilling in more ways than one, as we see Clover’s husband battle the elements to look after his herd of cows while trying to prevent the house from being flooded by the overflowing river, not to mention dealing with the dead body that’s floated into the cellar along with the floodwater. The humour is quite muted, but comes through blackly at points, and the plotting is fairly complex, though to be honest I’d more or less guessed both what had happened and what the outcome would be by about the halfway point.

Gillian White (Source: fantasticfiction.co.uk)
Gillian White
(Source: fantasticfiction.co.uk)

The characterisation is White’s real strength and she’s assembled a strong cast here. We learn through flashbacks of Violet’s unhappy early life when her widowed father married the archetypal wicked stepmother. Clover is shown as an unstable drama-queen, quite unsuited to be a farmer’s wife, as Violet pointed out well before the wedding. We see Fergus, tied to the land by his family’s expectations, trying to please everyone and failing. The manager of Happy Havens is a middle-aged woman, fearing that she will have to give up her freedom to look after her aging and not-terribly-lovable old father. And the one likeable character is Miss Kessel, the worried friend and roommate of the missing Miss Bates.

While I found this a clever and well put together tale, the unlikeablity of most of the characters prevented me from feeling really engaged with the story. White has also used the ‘omniscient narrator’ device, never a favourite trick of mine; and this particular narrator has a technique of interjecting sly little asides that I found rather annoying. The earlier timeline of Violet’s childhood was much more interesting to me than the gathering of rather unpleasant and self-obsessed people in the present-day farm. But all of these points are a matter of personal taste rather than a real criticism of the writing. Overall, I found this another well written and quirky tale – not quite White’s best, but still enjoyable and worth reading.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Open Road.

23 thoughts on “The Sleeper by Gillian White

  1. I think it ‘s so interesting how we get pulled out of otherwise terrific stories when the characters are simply not engaging. If there isn’t something appealing bout at least one of the characters, it can be a little harder to stay interested. Still, as you say, White does have talent and this one sounds like a good read.

  2. Many teachers of writing emphasize that characters don’t have to be likeable, they just have to be understandable. A reader should just be able to empathize with the character’s motivations and resultant actions. What are your thoughts? Do you think a character needs at least one redeeming quality or feature?

    • Likeable probably isn’t really the word I mean – probably empathetic, more. I need to feel I’m on someone’s side, I think – in crime particularly. I need to feel that I care what happens to someone or when they get bumped off or threatened, it doesn’t affect me. But even in lit fic I do feel the need to like/care about someone – that doesn’t mean they have to be ‘nice’ though. For instance, (since LF is ranting esewhere today about Bret Easton Ellis) I came to care about the awful Patrick in American Psycho. I wouldn’t want to have dinner with him exactly, but I could understand/sympathise with the craziness going on inside his head (at least, I hope it was inside his head!)

      But if characters are just run-of-the-mill unlikeable people that I wouldn’t want to spend time with in real life, then I don’t want to spend time with them in books either – and this lot were really just selfish and cold. So if a mad serial killer had arrived on the scene, I’d probably have preferred to chat to him on the whole…

  3. Clover Moon–what an interest! As a matter of fact, all the names seem great.

    I like the part about herding the cows. Did he have to protect them, too, from wild bears?

    And I assure you, this professor would probably not have guessed the end like you did. (The professor thinks FEF’s a sort of detective.)

    (Ooo, The Strangling on the Stage…Can’t wait for this one!)

    • Sadly no bears! But there was one particularly stupid cow that kept falling into a slurry pit…that was fun!

      I hardly ever guess the end though – really. That’s why, when I do, I think it must be dead obvious.

      Just going to start it tonight…once I get through today’s portion of the super-exciting adventures of Bush and Cheney!)

  4. Characters can be tricky sometimes. If I love them, I can overlook mediocre writing, and sometimes I just love to *hate* them. But I need to feel something other than indifferent. I won’t write this author off, though, because of your praise for the quality of her writing. That’s gotta count for something. 🙂

  5. Good to see your take on this one. I actually thought the omniscient narrator did add something to this one with her snide comments, it went well with the unlikeable characters. I do agree it was more interesting to understand what had happened in Violet’s childhood than the actual Christmas time. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • It’s just a personal preference thing – I always find omniscient narrators a bit annoying – they just seem to get in the way somehow. The stuff about Violet’s childhood was really well done, I thought, though…

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