I obtained a copy of Asleep in exchange for an honest review as part of a book review tour.
I love fairy tales. I loved them as a child and although I’m a child no longer (well, opinions might differ on that) I still love them. When I heard that this YA book was a reimagining of Sleeping Beauty, and after reading the details, I decided to read it. The fabulous cover also drew me in.
The story of Rose Briar is set in a rather undefined time (perhaps now, but it is not specified and neither location nor gadgets or medications give much of a clue. I guess it is ‘once upon a time’) and starts at a point of crisis. She’s being taken by her parents to a psychiatric clinic, for reasons not completely clear. Although the story is written in the third person, it is told from Rose’s point of view, and we’re not sure her version of events is correct. The psychiatric clinic appears a bit peculiar at first sight, and is connected to Rose’s family in strange ways (her mother’s best friend, Heather, was a patient there years back and she committed suicide shortly after leaving the clinic), but we don’t realise quite how peculiar until Rose starts to experiment strange events, that neither her nor us, the readers, know if are true, or nightmares. Is she being physically tortured? Are other patients locked up and inhumanely treated there? Why does she seem to lose time?
Luckily, she meets Phillip, although he prefers to be called Greg, a boy of a similar age to hers. At times he seems completely out of it, bruised, battered and mumbling numbers, but at others, he is not only protective of her, but insists that she is like him. She can’t help but be intrigued by him at first, and later she ends up feeling the connection he mentions, although she is not a hundred percent sure.
The longer Rose spends at the clinic, the more confused she becomes as to whom she can trust and what the agenda behind her stay there is. The friends she believed in don’t seem to be as reliable as she thought; Dr. Underwood is nice and caring but seems to have a strange attachment to Heather and Rose suspects that in his mind, she and Heather have become connected. He is definitely hiding something. And although she blames her parents, particularly her mother, for her internment, she desperately wants to go back home.
The experience of reading this book is a strange one. I’m a psychiatrist and I was intrigued by the idea of setting the story in a psychiatric hospital. Leaving the horror aspects of the story related to what might be happening at the clinic (and I’m trying not to reveal any spoilers here) aside, the way in which the readers are placed inside of Rose’s head and share her feelings and perceptions make it a confusing and nerve-wracking reading experience. You might not agree with what she does, but you are given no option but to follow her and share in her confusion and her difficulty making decisions. You keep trying to find clues to turn it into a linear narrative, but keep being wrong-footed along the way. At some point, I wasn’t sure if the present or the past were real, or if anything was real at all.
The reading is vivid although being inside of Rose’s head we don’t get the chance to see the place and the people as they are (talk about an unreliable narrator!). We might objectively think we’d never have ended up in such situation, but we join the story at a point where she has not many options, and none of the ones left seem good. Rose’s difficulty expressing herself through her art is a good metaphor for her problems. The author has the eye of an artist and some of her descriptions of the hallucinations and the works of art are beautiful (and sometimes horrific at the same time).
I enjoyed the end, but for me, there were many things not fully explained, and more in keeping with a fairy tale than a realistic novel. If we want to compare it to Sleeping Beauty, this turns the story of the attempts at rescuing her (she had done nothing wrong and it was fate and a bad fairy who played a part in her imprisonment), and twists it into a possible version of what was happening to the princess whilst she was supposed to be asleep. She is no longer the passive female figure waiting for the prince to come and find her. Instead, she has to fight her own demons and she and the prince work together to get free. The character of Doctor Underwood is one of the strongest ones in the book, and it brought to my mind the film Peeping Tom (but again I won’t elaborate to avoid giving you too many clues).
This is a story that will keep people guessing, although it’s not a typical horror story but rather a psychological eerie tale. If you enjoy a reading that will get you out of your comfort zone and challenge your sense of narrative, this could well be it. Ah, and the writing and the cover are true beauties.