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ANNA O.
by Matthew Blake
HarperCollins, January 2024
448 pages
$30.00
ISBN: 0063314150


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The title makes ANNA O. sound like a Freudian case study, which it is in a way. Dr. Ben Prince, director of a celebrated, innovative Harley Street, London sleep disorder clinic that doubles as a sleep studies lab gets the case of a lifetime: wake up Anna Ogilvy, the twentysomething Oxford-educated daughter of the Minister of Health. Anna, or, as the right-wing tabloid media call her, "Sleeping Beauty," has been asleep for four years continuously. In a way, that's a relief for her parents because she was discovered in their rural cabin, asleep, holding a bloody dagger, between the murdered bodies of her two flatmates, best friends, and fellow Oxbridge graduates. Did she kill them? Did she kill them in her sleep? She had a history of sleepwalking. Should anyone be held morally responsible for actions committed while asleep--even murder? The Ministry of Justice, unable to solve these questions with humanist knowledge alone, brings in Dr. Prince.

Blake's novel is riveting and satirical at once. Can (the) Prince wake up Sleeping Beauty is a dramatic mystery and an obnoxious question, as Price and Blake understand very well. What is Anna O. sleeping -- her condition is called "resignation syndrome, and it's a real medical condition" -- to avoid confronting? Does Ben want to know?

The answers to these questions take Ben into the archives to investigate another sleepwalking murder, for which a sleepwalking housewife dubbed the "Stockwell Monster" was convicted and sectioned indefinitely at Dartmoor Hospital, the infamous prison hospital where numerous famous murderers judged clinically insane went never to recuperate. Meanwhile, he tries to be a good parent to his young daughter, KitKat, and a good co-parent to her mother, cop Clara Prince--who happened to be first on the scene of the Anna O. murders.

Blake tells this story from multiple perspectives, including Ben's and Anna's. Ben's comparison of his situation to Freudian case studies and Sherlock Holmes puzzles turns the book into a generic mash-up of procedural and literary crime fiction. Like Freud, is this doctor making things up, or lying to himself? Are his own syndromes part of Anna O.'s story -- or are anyone else's? Did she even commit the murders, and if she didn't, why were they committed and pinned on her? Or is Anna O., prior to the murders an emergent media darling, influencer, and crime journalist interested in the Stockwell Monster case, an engineer of the entire situation?

You won't find out until the very end, but ANNA O. will keep you guessing until then: guessing and thinking about all the urgent scientific and ethical questions Blake raises.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, January 2024

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