The Innocent Sleep
Robin and Harry are two young Irish artists living a bohemian ex-pat life in Tangiers. After some skipping around Europe, and with the moderate success of Harry’s first show, they find Tangiers and are immediately captivated with the light, the medinas and the sheer exoticness of Morocco’s capital. Upon their arrival, they come across Cozimo, a bookstore owner lying on the ground having been knocked there by a passing bicyclist. They help him to the hospital, continuing to check on him throughout his stay there. To show his thanks, he rents them an apartment above his bookstore for an “agreeable sum.” The arrangement works beautifully: there is ample room to paint, more friends found through the older man, and their dreams for the next three years seem to be unfolding seamlessly.
Eighteen months later, Robin is pregnant. While they agree that Tangiers might not be the ideal place to raise a child, the allure of the city still holds. They stay, making ends meet with Robin’s part-time job at a nearby bar. Fatherhood wasn’t in Harry’s immediate vision of the future, but he adapts, albeit sometimes grudgingly. Missing the morning light because of a colicky baby was definitely not part of his plans. He grows closer to Cozimo and a smaller group of ex-pats with whom he spends the hours while Robin is away. Dillon, their son, is both an amusement and a distraction to this crowd, but Harry’s love for him is sincere and deep.
As the novel opens, Harry is preparing Robin’s birthday dinner. Putting Dillon to bed early, he cooks an elaborate meal, throws saffron linen bought in the market over their dusty couch, places candles on the table, and then looks for the beautiful silver dish he has bought her. At that instant he realizes he left it at Cozimo’s, several blocks away. Torn between a father’s concern for his child, who is sleeping after all, and the desire to please his wife, he hesitates before dashing down the stairs and across the city. Surely he can be back in 10 minutes! At Cozimo’s he grabs the platter and turns to head back to the flat. The light of the day seemed to him a harbinger of an impending storm, and in this instant the earth begins to shake and quiver. A major earthquake has struck Tangiers, and Harry desperately races back to his building, which has been swallowed by the earth. No bodies are ever recovered.
"Karen Perry...has produced a haunting, tragic debut novel that on the surface seems to be the straightforward story of a couple who struggles to move on years after the loss of their child. As the storyline becomes more convoluted, however, it proves that sometimes what you think you see is actually very different from what is. It all depends on the light."
Five years later, Robin and Harry have resettled in Dublin. Robin has gone back to school and studied architecture, and is now employed with a firm. Harry is still a painter, fairly successful in certain circles. They are in the process of restoring a family home, a long-range project that leaves them often with a barely inhabitable house. It is big enough, though, for Harry to have his studio there, and so he’s in the final stages of moving his things from a rented studio (which offered plenty of privacy and space, and time to call his own) to the unheated garage off the kitchen in the home he shares with Robin. Harry’s guilt over what happened to their son has led him to life as a functioning alcoholic, with most nights (and even some afternoons) seeming to end with him at the bottom of a bottle somewhere.
One afternoon, Harry stumbles around a corner and into an organized government protest in the town square. Fighting his way through the edges of the crowds, he spies a woman further down the street walking away from him, leading a child by the hand. The young boy is just about the age of Dillon --- nine --- had he not died in the earthquake. Harry frantically tries to catch up with the pair, but his efforts to get through the throngs are fruitless. Just before they disappear, the child looks back and into Harry’s eyes. Harry is immediately convinced that this is his long-lost son --- the same one believed by all to be dead, despite the lack of a body. For how could anyone, least of all a four-year-old, survive such a calamity?
From here, the novel, told in the alternating voices of Robin and Harry, becomes a tragic tale of two grieving parents who thought the worst was behind them. Harry --- obsessed that his son is still alive --- pursues every possible lead he can find that might take him to the boy he glimpsed on the street. His drinking buddy, Spencer, has lots of connections that enable Harry in this endeavor, even though Spencer, like everyone else, thinks it’s futile.
Robin at first humors him, but when she confirms her suspicions that, after nine years of carefully practiced birth control, she is again with child, she does her best to help him realize that what they lost in the past is past, but there is a new future ahead of them to consider. Her patience and love for him in his half-crazed state is admirable and, at times, maddening.
As the book unfolds, small threads begin to knit together until Harry’s theory that his son may still be alive starts holding more and more water.
Karen Perry --- the pen name of Dublin-based authors Paul Perry and Karen Gillece --- has produced a haunting, tragic debut novel that on the surface seems to be the straightforward story of a couple who struggles to move on years after the loss of their child. As the storyline becomes more convoluted, however, it proves that sometimes what you think you see is actually very different from what is. It all depends on the light.
Reviewed by Jamie Layton on February 21, 2014