I’m not sure what to make of The Right Hand of Sleep. I think I missed a lot. Wray is certainly a fine writer, purportedly one of the best of the new crop, and his characters make interesting reading companions. However, I wasn’t sure where the book was going much of the time, and now that it’s over, I’m not sure where it went.
It’s a grim tale in a grim time. Our Austrian protagonist, Alex, s sent off to war in 1917, age fifteen, to fight for the Kaiser. After undergoing some ugliness and brutality, he (quite sensibly) deserts and heads east. This leads to twenty years in the Ukraine as the “husband” of a peasant girl on a Soviet cooperative farm. All this we learn as backstory in italics and in the first person. The story proper is set in his home village to which he returns in 1938 after the death of his Ukrainian partner.
1938, of course, is a transition period. The European transition to Naziism. And, of course, the Nazi’s come to the village. Alex is a rather glum fellow who seems unclear about what he wants or where he’s going. He’s got anger issues and poor impulse control so that he sometimes act against his own self-interest. This sometimes happens in defense of some ideal, as when he slams a beer mug into a Nazi face when a Jewish friend is insulted. However, he mostly wants to be left alone and to isolate. In a later time, he might be called clinically depressed.
He secures a position as the nominal gamekeeper of a forest land owned by by a Jewish tavern/hotel owner, which enables him to hide out. Wandering his lands, he meets an outcast woman. They make a fetching pair when together. Witty, engaging. But, of course, they can’t keep themselves out of the social fray entirely. The coming horror touches them in the person of a father/lover/cousin SS officer. Whose back story reaches us in first person italics just as Alex’s deserter/Ukranian past did. And there are ironic parallels.
I suppose that The Right Hand of Sleep is a play on the phrase “The right hand of God,” but I don’t quite see the parallel between God and sleep in the book. Alex would rather sleep than fight, though he’s not particularly narcoleptic, and he can’t help himself from occasionally getting involved, as I described above. However, that doesn’t seem sufficient for the whole title. So, as I said, I must have missed something. Otherwise, this is just another Nazi horror story, with which the market is saturated. I’ve somehow stumbled on three in the last month or so. And I think it’s more than that. What more? You tell me.