The Hippo


Oct 21, 2017








We Shall Not All Sleep, by Estep Nagy
(Bloomsbury USA, 272 pages)


 Though this book was pitched as a summer beach read, We Shall Not All Sleep has complicated interpersonal and political dramas that require intense concentration. The lush setting of a private island in Maine may provide some serene mental landscapes, but wading through the onslaught of character names and relationship explanations feels more like getting caught in a riptide than taking a relaxing dip in the ocean. The book eventually rewards you for your dedication with a delicious resolution, but be forewarned that this short novel is the opposite of a page-turner.

“Seven Island has two houses, one for Hillsingers and one for Quicks.” So is the lore of the fictional Seven Island off the coast of Maine, a vacation respite for two wealthy families whose ancestors made their fortunes through the Revolutionary and Civil wars but who maintain a polite distance from one another. The four main characters are Jim Hillsinger, his wife Lila Hillsinger (née Blackwell), Billy Quick, and his wife Hannah Quick (also née Blackwell, sister of Lila), though it takes a long while to ascertain their importance when the perspective shifts among a dozen or so characters. The island’s two houses are practically personified characters themselves.
The Hill House is the older one, originally built for the farming Hillsingers. Its haphazard expansions and renovations through the years have given it a more lived-in feel. By contrast, the New House was intentionally built by the Quicks with a sleek and modern architectural approach, giving it the style of the austere New York apartments both families left behind during this summer of 1964. Lila claims that no one has ever slept in both places (hard to believe, for a 100-some-year history) apart from the introductory character of John Wilkie, whose relevance doesn’t become apparent until the end of the book.
Jim Hillsinger and Billy Quick have opposite fortunes than their houses would suggest: Jim Hillsinger has a steady progression of promotions in his CIA career, methodical and well-thought-out like the Quicks’ New House, while Billy Quick’s ramshackle career mirrors the Hillsingers’ house’s composition. Billy is forced to resign from his safe bank career after Hannah’s brief brush with communism during the height of McCarthyism, but that allows Quick to invest in profitable exotic markets instead. The book opens when Jim has also been forced to resign, for reasons that are slowly teased out through the story. 
The novel flashes back from 1964 to the paranoid McCarthyism of 1955 and the Cold War 1960s. These are by far the most captivating parts of the plot, but it takes a while for the threads to pick up momentum. Nagy drops breadcrumbs about the now-deceased Hannah’s communist ties and Jim’s alleged treason, enticing the reader to see how deeply these characters may have betrayed their families and country. 
The book could have benefitted from exploring the deterioration of Hannah and Lila’s relationship over Hannah’s political affiliations, but instead they cut ties off-screen, and Lila is reduced to the role of femme fatale to entice nearly all of the male characters. Eventually, the various combinations of relationships have their own plot twists, though it’s difficult to determine whether any of the characters truly care for each other.
Sorting out the interpersonal relationships between characters is made all the more difficult from the ever-shifting points of view. At certain points, Nagy cycles through three characters’ heads in just as many paragraphs without warning, requiring deliberate focus from the reader to parse out who is thinking what. Instead of providing robust caricatures of the novel’s many protagonists (as Nagy probably intended with this technique), the omniscient narrator prevents any one character from being fully fleshed out and makes it tough for the reader to stay grounded in the present scenes. Perhaps Nagy threw in extraneous details to force the reader to figure out which characters and events are important and which ones are red herrings, mimicking the investigations that follow Hannah and Jim. However, if that was the intention, the frustrating process of piecing the puzzle together may detract from the rewarding feeling upon the puzzle’s completion.
Other subplots include Jim and Lila’s son Catta surviving a night alone on one of the smaller islands with no tools to aid him, Lila sleeping with Billy after Hannah’s death, and Seven Island’s annual sheep migration from the main island to another one of the smaller islands to graze. All held potential for further drama and instead fell a little flat. Nevertheless, Nagy does an excellent job of threading together the vivid imagery of the idyllic Maine wilderness and political intrigue in this debut novel, so it’s worth the read if you’re prepared to sink your teeth into it. C 
— Katherine Ouellette 

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