Book Review: Stay Awake by Megan Goldin

Megan Goldin's Stay Awake is a complex psychological thriller about a woman on the run for a murder she doesn't remember committing. Here's Janet Webb's review!

It’s the middle of the night in the city that never sleeps. Liv Reese is exhausted. She wants to collapse in her own bed. She takes a cab from Manhattan, crosses the Brooklyn Bridge, staggers out of the car, and buzzes the intercom of her brownstone. Why isn’t her roommate Amy letting her in? A door opens but it’s not Amy.

I step forward, eager to get into the warmth of my apartment and, hopefully soon, the comfort of my bed. As I move across the threshold, the woman slams the door shut to try to keep me out.

“Ouch.” I wince when the door hits my foot.

Despite the pain, I don’t move my foot out of the way.

“You need to go,” she tells me.

“That’s my apartment.” I point to the top of the landing.

“That’s where we live,” says the man. “You’ve made a mistake.”

Maybe Liv is mistaken because the interior is very different—her eclecticism has been replaced with a more minimalist design. But when Liv looks outside, she spots the brightly painted flower boxes in the apartment window across the way—the same view she’s had for years. She leaves, totally disoriented, and pats herself down, looking for her phone. In place of the phone she finds a bunch of bills in her front pocket. Lastly, wrapped in a T-shirt, she finds a stainless steel knife streaked with fresh blood. It clatters to the ground. Liv’s horrified that something so gory is in her possession. She wraps the shirt around the knife and throws the bundle in a garbage can. She flags down a cab, thinking she’ll go see her boyfriend, Marco, then decides against it after giving herself a once-over and discovering some scribbled messages on her hands:

Above my knuckles are letters written in black ballpoint pen. I put both fists together. The letters spell out the words STAY AWAKE. Above my right wrist I’ve written the name and address of a place called Nocturnal.

I lean forward and tell the driver to take me there instead.

The bare bones of the plot are laid out in the first few pages. Why doesn’t Liv Reese remember where she lives? Why is she in possession of a bloody knife? She doesn’t remember anything that has happened to her in the last two years. The writing on her hands is her way of forcing herself to stay in the present because when she collapses into sleep, she wakes up to a world that doesn’t make sense. The timeline shifts frequently between present-day and two years earlier, but Goldin only gives tantalizing, sketchy clues as to what might have caused Liv’s disorientation. 

Darcy Halliday is a new homicide detective in her first months on the job, and has yet work her own case. While jogging she catches a message from headquarters that there is a homicide nearby. She’s on it, arriving so quickly she’s first on the scene. The victim is a young man. Halliday asks the medical examiner, Dr. Franklin, if he finds anything strange:

“Other than the gaping hole in his chest?” he asked flippantly, before realizing Halliday was serious. “What’s troubling you, Detective?”

“Looks to me like he slept through his own murder.”

“You think he was drugged?”

“I’d say it’s a distinct possibility. There’s no bruises or scratches on his body. No sign of a struggle.”

Halliday runs with that thought and examines the victim’s hands and nails, but find no abrasions or trauma. A senior homicide cop, Detective Jack Lavelle, arrives and tells her they’ll be working the case together, which to Halliday’s mind is preferable to him pulling rank and taking over. The last clue uncovered is a doozy—a message that looks like gibberish written on the floor-to-ceiling window.

“It’s sign writing. It was written backward so it can be read properly from the outside,” said Halliday.

“What does it say?” the photographer asked, taking a burst of photos.

“It says: WAKE UP!

In the meantime, Liv desperately looks for familiar anchors. She doesn’t have a phone, a bank card, a computer—who wouldn’t feel adrift in such circumstances? She shows up at her workplace. In her mind, she’s a successful writer for a trendy magazine. But like her apartment, everything is different, even though the employees seem to know who she is. To say more would be to give away a complicated, ingenious plot. Suffice it to say when Liv catches glances of social media and learns of a horrific murder, capped off with mysterious writing—the same writing that’s on her hands—she is thrown into turmoil and confusion. Could she have murdered someone unknowingly? To Liv, her mind is an unreliable narrator—can she trust her instincts when she senses she’s being followed? 

As with Goldin’s hit debut novel, The Escape Room, Stay Awake is full of complex, riveting, frightening scenarios. Readers certainly won’t need to be warned to “stay awake”—the story and the writing will make sure of that. Curious if we’ll see Halliday and Lavelle on the pages of another Goldin thriller—the two are ying and yang but make a great team.

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