Stay Awake

By Megan Goldin

Penguin/RandomHouse 2022

Publisher’s blurb

Liv Reese wakes up in the back of a taxi with no idea where she is or how she got there. When she’s dropped off at the door of her brownstone, a stranger answers—a stranger who claims to live in her apartment. She reaches for her phone to call for help, only to discover it’s missing. In its place is a bloodstained knife. Her hands are covered in scribbled messages, like graffiti on her skin: STAY AWAKE.

Two years ago, Liv was thriving as a successful writer for a trendy magazine. Now, she’s lost and disoriented in a New York City that looks nothing like what she remembers. Catching a glimpse of the local news, she’s horrified to see reports of a crime scene where the victim’s blood has been used to scrawl a message across a window, the same message that’s inked on her hands. What did she do last night? And why does she remember nothing from the past two years? Liv finds herself on the run for a crime she doesn’t remember committing. But there’s someone who does know exactly what she did, and they’ll do anything to make her forget—permanently.

Liv Reese wakes up in the back of a taxi with no idea where she is or how she got there. When she’s dropped off at the door of her brownstone, a stranger answers—a stranger who claims to live in her apartment. She reaches for her phone to call for help, only to discover it’s missing. In its place is a bloodstained knife. Her hands are covered in scribbled messages, like graffiti on her skin: STAY AWAKE.

Two years ago, Liv was thriving as a successful writer for a trendy magazine. Now, she’s lost and disoriented in a New York City that looks nothing like what she remembers. Catching a glimpse of the local news, she’s horrified to see reports of a crime scene where the victim’s blood has been used to scrawl a message across a window, the same message that’s inked on her hands. What did she do last night? And why does she remember nothing from the past two years? Liv finds herself on the run for a crime she doesn’t remember committing. But there’s someone who does know exactly what she did, and they’ll do anything to make her forget—permanently.

Reviewer: Robyn Walton

First published in the Weekend Australian on 10 September 2022 and reproduced with permission.

Stay Awake is our fourth standalone novel from Megan Goldin, an Australian author who excels at intelligently reworking crime fiction forms. The Escape Room (2018) was Goldin’s update of the locked room mystery, The Night Swim (2020) her podcast-era version of the reporter turned small-community investigator. They were both good reads, but it is what Goldin did in her 2017 debut novel, The Girl in Keller’s Way, a domestic noir, that illuminates her new book.

In interviews marking the release of Keller’s Way, Goldin referred to her love for Gothic romances and Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 classic of psychological menace, Rebecca, as well as her fascination with memory research. Her protagonist, the second wife of a psychology professor in an American college town, struggled to distinguish accurate memories from false and to keep her sanity despite inappropriate medication and gaslighting.

Now, in Stay Awake,Goldin has updated her own update, replacing provincial marriage with the lifestyles of youngish professionals and service-industry people in a big city and inviting us to empathise with the sufferer of a rare form of amnesia, repetitive dissociative fugue. Having discovered that each time she falls asleep she forgets what has happened in her life during the past two-and-a-quarter years, 32-year-old Liv Reese has set herself the Sisyphean task of perpetually keeping her eyelids open.

In a basement Manhattan apartment, Liv sees a message on a wall written by a finger dipped in black coffee. There are more messages in pen and marker. “Memories lie”, they warn, “Don’t trust anyone”, and – most ominously – “He’s coming for me”. The fridge is full of caffeinated drinks, the bins hold emptied packets of No-Doz. Liv’s hands and forearms carry messages in her own handwriting, with “STAY AWAKE” spelled out across her knuckles.

The only thing certain about Liv’s situation in this clever suspenser is that she is in a dangerous condition of loss and alienation, alone on the streets in November with only the clothes she is wearing and some cash, but no ID, phone, or journal. Lacking trust, she flees authority figures, alters her appearance, and is too paranoid to ask for help. Each time she involuntarily drops asleep – on a park bench, on public transport – she soon re-awakes, hazy about any incremental gains she has made.

Amnesia noir narratives appear in runs of a couple of decades I’ve noticed. They dramatize reactions to destabilizing societal changes. “Farewell the tranquil mind!”

In a period of increasing surveillance and scientific investigation, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) featured amnesia plus aberrant behaviour (gem theft) while opiate affected. It pointed a way forward from sensation novels to Holmesian detection and Freud’s early ideas about amnesia.

Books and films incorporating nightmares, panic attacks, and memory blanks attributable to PTSD (then called shellshock or war neurosis) appeared in various countries after the world wars. Sleepwalking, actual and metaphoric, was another common motif.

In the last two decades, we’ve seen a proliferation of movies, games, and texts involving time shifts, memory malfunctions, and identity theft. Why? One thought is that the literal losses of a protagonist may be read as metonyms of collective insecurities. Another, that such unsettling subject matter speaks to mental overload and calls for hyper-alertness in a 24/7 online culture.

Liv comes to police attention after detectives scrutinizing a murder scene in a sixth-floor apartment find the victim’s blood has been used for writing a message in back-to-front letters on the windowpane. “WAKE UP!”, the words shout. CCTV recordings show a woman approaching the crime scene apartment; Liv’s prints are identified on a discarded knife. That’s the kind of data that leads the senior NYPD detective on the case to insist it’s Liv as prime suspect, Liv on the lam.

But might this stripped-down woman be more sinned against than sinning? It’s probable some trauma she cannot remember brought on her amnesia, and British authorities familiar with Liv’s past rate her as more likely a victim than a perpetrator. Was Liv lured to that murder scene to be framed? Is the murderer out to eliminate Liv before she deliberately or unwittingly reveals their guilt?

In Stay Awake Goldincarries off the considerable achievement of constructing a complicated narrative structure with frequent time jumps without baffling her readers. The intensity of Liv’s feelings is conveyed in her nervy first-person narration, though some readers will wince at the mixed metaphors, cliches, and dodgy grammar.

For readers more inclined to side with Stay Awake’sinvestigators, I can tell you the NYPD chapters are written in the third person and move forward steadily, describing activities across almost 24 hours. While Liv is wired on caffeine, ambition-driven junior detective Darcy Halliday advocates vegetarian burgers and is training for an ultra-marathon fundraiser for wounded veterans.

Imagining yourself confronted by Darcy, you may find yourself backing away from your coffee cup with your hands raised. Alternatively, Goldin’s book could prompt you to do what troubled Liv does: head to a late-night haunt with an understanding bar attendant who’ll line you up a couple of espresso martinis.

https://www.penguin.com.au/books/stay-awake-9781760897222