By trade a hypnotist, Adrian Strother is also an adept of Hermetic lore and (like author Madison Smartt Bell) a student of the martial arts. As the novel begins, he is suffering from prolonged sleeplessness—an ironic condition, since one service he performs for his clients is to cure them of insomnia. A sleepless man doesn’t always think clearly or report accurately what he sees; that may account in part for the fantastic elements in Adrian’s first-person narrative.
DOCTOR SLEEP explores the relationship between body and mind, matter and consciousness, the universe and the individual human being. It is a love story (Adrian’s lover, Clara, leaves him; will she return?), a murder mystery (involving a serial killer whose victims are little girls), and a psychological thriller (one of Adrian’s patients is a woman with a multiple personality disorder, the result of childhood abuse). It is also a coming-to-maturity tale: Two American visitors, reminders of Adrian’s days as a heroin addict, help him to make a long-overdue accounting with his past.
Bell handles these diverse strands with assurance—though he’s only in his early thirties, DOCTOR SLEEP is his sixth novel—but the book is curiously uninvolving. It’s not enough to complain that the events in the novel frequently seem unreal; from the beginning (Bell takes his epigraph from THE TEMPEST) there are hints that we are entering the realm of the dream, the fable, the romance. Bell’s creation, however, never takes on a life of its own; disbelief is only fitfully suspended.