Rating: 5 stars out of 5
Daniel Whitlock is back in his hometown of Logan, South Carolina, after serving time in prison for killing a man. The man Daniel killed was another local boy, Kenny Cooper, someone who savagely beat Daniel because he was gay. The problem is that Daniel doesn’t remember burning down Kenny’s house with Kenny in it. Daniel is a sleepwalker and has been since he was a child but no one believed him when Daniel told everyone that he had been asleep when he burned Kenny’s house to the ground. Convicted with time served, now Daniel has returned home to a town that hates him and a family that won’t speak to him. Isolated in a cabin in the woods, Daniel chains himself to the bed each night in hopes that he can sleep. Sometimes it works, mostly it doesn’t.
When Daniel is found causing trouble at the local bar, its up to Logan cop Joe Belman to break up the fight and take Daniel home. Like everyone else in town Bel has never believed Daniel’s defense of sleepwalking. But now faced with the reality of a Daniel who doesn’t remember the fight at the bar, Bel’s attitude towards Daniel starts to change. When Kenny’s friends retaliate against Daniel, Bel agrees to watch over him, to keep Daniel safe by any means…including tying him up and handcuffs.
Watching over Daniel, dominating him to protect him, brings out a side of Bel he never knew existed. And as he slips into a relationship with Daniel, one that deepens by the day, Bel finds himself looking at his hometown and its citizens in a new and harsh light. It’s not only the town that won’t leave Daniel alone but his own fears and demons too. Only with Bel does he find any measure of peace…now if only he can let himself believes he deserves it and that Bel will stick with him no matter what.
Not many books these days leave me speechless, let alone exceed any expectations I might have had from the blurb given. But When All the World Sleeps is that treasure of a book that leapt over my perceptions and conjectures into a triumph of storytelling.
Truthfully, it’s the characters first that surprised me. I was unprepared for damaged Daniel Whitlock and his somnambulism. And how deeply this character would affect me. His pain and anguish over the past, and not just Kenny, is so profoundly real that I could swear I saw Daniel’s blood and tears wash over the Kindle’s screen as certain scenes unfolded. He is steeped in guilt and confusion. By returning to Logan, all the memories and problems that Daniel carries with him just intensifies for him and the reader on an almost hourly basis. There is little mercy to be found in this small town with its almost biblical memory and cemented social judgements, whether it be against gays or convicts or those that happen to live outside the town’s proscribed idea of normal. And oh the danger if someone just happens to be all of those. That is a marked man, whether it be open taunts or concealed hatred.
Joe Belman, or Bel as he is called is another remarkable character in a sea of them. Bel is someone we watch grow emotionally throughout the story. He starts off as just another typical Logan citizen, holding much the same viewpoints and values as all the other close-knit family members and small town denizens. Logan is so central to who Bel thinks he is that it would never occur to Bel to live anywhere else, so strongly does Bel identify with the town and his family and friends. But all that starts to change when Daniel reappears in Bel’s life. There is a fundamental change that has to happen before Bel can see Daniel as someone other than a liar and killer, and that change happens slowly and with great realism. Henry and Rock achieve something remarkable here with Bel. His changeover in attitude and feelings towards Daniel feels so authentic in his doubt, stubborness, and finally acceptance that the authors pull the readers along with Bel’s introspection and emotional discoveries about himself and Daniel. It’s intimate, it’s a ground swell of emotion that never stops breaking and its breathtaking in its accomplishment in making me, and all the readers so vested in these characters and their delicate relationship that any swerve off the path for them is as painful for us as it is devastating for them. Bel is that singular voice in the night, the one that stands out in the sea of small town secrets and listening to him soon becomes as addictive as it is necessary.
Lisa Henry and J.A. Rock certainly understand the small Southern town mentality, one I am familiar with myself. There is a delicate emotional balance that is necessary to achieve for appreciating and comprehending the complexities of life lived within its confines. My father escaped it as early as possible, his brother never did. The pull of a small hometown can sometimes be so strong in its depth of history (familial and otherwise), of its deep cultural and societal roots that establish themselves within a person never to relinquish their hold, that some people never leave its jurisdiction, whether that be physical or emotional. Henry and Rock get that and have made it come alive here within the pages of When All the World Sleeps. The good, the bad, the indifference to the sufferings of those the town cannot abide or understand…its all there, laid out for the reader who has no idea of the charms and pitfalls that exist in such an atmosphere and makes it accessible.
When there is a bdsm content in a story, especially where it is a major element in a main character’s emotional makeup, I always wonder how its treatment will let me relate to the story and the character(s) involved. Again, Henry and Rock take a multitude of difficult subject matters and by combining them, make us understand the demons that haunt Daniel and the methods chosen to help him deal with them. Its another outstanding accomplishment that such methods seem utterly reasonable and necessary for both men, including Bel who is new to the whole idea of domination and submission. Bel does his homework on the subject, researching and having open discussions, well as open as is possible with Daniel, on the toys and tools to be used to make Daniel feels safe enough to sleep. There is a natural progression from ignorance to total participation as a dominant and partner from Bel. As there is an answering growth and recovery from Daniel at the end of the story.
With all the hatred that floats throughout this story, the self hatred, the hostility and animosity from the town, the pain and rejection that seems to be a matter of course for several of the inhabitants here, there are also scenes of incredible tenderness and raw sexuality. There is a moment with body markers so memorable in its tenderness and awkward eroticism that I didn’t know how to respond… then it gets to the end and I what my response should be…cheering for the bravery that is both Daniel and Bel, celebrating their almost impossible union and the milestones they have reached. Hard not to reach for a tissue after that.
But the authors are not through with us or Bel and Daniel. They are carefully constructing their plot, laying out the foundation and then the rest of the plot building blocks with the same attention to detail they did with the facts about sleepwalking and therapy. Daniel is a superb artist, drawing both day and night and remembering only by seeing the results on paper when he awakes. The chills brought forth from the drawings ups the level of rising anxiety as events start to rush towards a climax. And while the events speed towards a resolution, the plot never feels rushed or incomplete. This is a narrative that leaves nothing to chance or is weighed down by extraneous or inconsequential elements. The book is 405 pages long yet it never felt that way to me.
This story is so complete that I don’t feel a need for a sequel. It ends as it should. I think this is one of the finest books of 2014.
Cover Art by Amber Shah. Again this will be on my Best Covers list. The tones and the atmosphere achieved here are perfect for the story and characters within.
Published March 24th 2014 by Riptide Publishing (first published March 22nd 2014)
ISBN 1626490791 (ISBN13: 9781626490796)
review posted back in 2014