It is the August holiday season on Carratuck Island, New York. A young boy, clutching a handheld video game and either unable or unwilling to speak, has been found abandoned on the beach but no one knows who he is or where he has come from. However, his appearance seems to coincide with residents and tourists alike finding themselves stricken by crippling insomnia: unable to sleep and desperate for explanations, they start to blame the mysterious child for what is happening to them. As mass hysteria tightens its grip, exhaustion impairs judgement, delusions, hallucinations and paranoia become the norm and mob rule explodes into shocking violence.

This compelling story is told from the perspectives of four central characters – Chief of Police Mays as he struggles to keep order; teenager Cort, who, with her friends is competing in a dangerous social media contest for who can stay awake longest; Kathy, an island resident and girlfriend of Dr. Sam Carlson, a former Harvard psychiatrist but now the island’s physician. Battling ghosts from his past and the blurriness of his own insomnia, Sam attempts to discover the cause and a cure for the epidemic, whilst also trying to discover the identity of the Boy – quests which will eventually force him and the child to flee the violent mob which blames the child for the epidemic.

It’s hard to know where to begin with my reflections on this powerful, multi-layered psychological thriller because there are so many inter-linked themes and strands which contribute to the inexorable build-up of tension as the story becomes ever-darker and more complex and I don’t want to risk introducing any spoilers! So, in very general terms, here are some of the things which most impressed me as I became enthralled by Roy Freirich’s masterful story-telling.

He very effectively captured the disturbing and cumulative effects, both physical and psychological, of chronic insomnia and the desperate measures people will take to seek the oblivion of sleep, with its consequent emotional outlet through dreams. As he relentlessly ratcheted-up the tension, he graphically described how quickly fear and paranoia spread in this small community when people were faced with something which felt inexplicable and threatening and how easily they lost their capacity for rational thought and reasonable behaviour. The resulting state of anomie created conditions which provided fertile ground for mass-hysteria and mob-rule to take hold and, eventually, wield a terrible power. As I became engaged with the story I was reminded (almost inevitably, I think!) of stories such as Lord of the Flies, Mist over Pendle, The Crucible etc. However, that was as a result of the author’s psychologically credible portrayal of people who felt caught up in something which felt beyond their control, rather than because I thought that the story was in any way derivative. I found that the escalating fear and violence created such a palpable tension throughout the novel that there were moments when it felt almost unbearable, when I felt almost as desperate as the gritty-eyed and sleep-deprived characters to find a release from it but, as I needed a resolution, to stop reading never felt like an option!

Living close to a region which relies heavily on tourism, and where a very high proportion of local people are employed in low-paid service jobs, I recognised the author’s depictions of the tensions which are so often evident between demanding visitors and full-time local residents. With underlying resentment and ambivalence about their livelihoods being dependent on the holiday-makers simmering barely beneath the surface of their enforced interactions, the powerful sense of inequality can all too often result in various examples of passive-aggressive behaviour.

Equally well depicted were his observations on society’s increasing obsession with technology and social media, with the amount of time people spend looking at the screens of their mobile devices rather than engaging face to face with each other, or with the landscape surrounding them. How much does this level of detachment contribute to a lack of empathy, as well as a reduced awareness of the impact our behaviour has on other people?

I really appreciated Roy Freirich’s eloquent use of language to create such a compelling story, one which featured not only a cast of vivid, memorable characters, but also many highly-evocative descriptions of the island background against which the drama was being played out. I’m sure that his vast experience as a screenwriter contributed to this being a very visual story, but for me its real strength lies in the fact that it is so multi-layered, encompasses such a wide range of themes (guilt, regret, the search for redemption, post-traumatic stress, scapegoating, mob-rule – to name just a few!) and is so reflectively insightful.

I think it must by now be apparent that, from start to finish, I felt totally caught up in this powerful story, reluctant to put it down, even when that ran the risk of not sleeping! So, my recommendation that you should read it for yourself to discover just how good it is, must also come with a warning … that there won’t be much chance of sleep whilst reading it as you won’t want to put it down, but that there will be a very real chance of insomnia afterwards … because you won’t be able to stop thinking about it!

With many thanks to Meerkat Press for allowing me to read this memorable novel in exchange for an honest review.

Linda Hepworth 5/5*

Deprivation by Roy Freirich
9781946154217 Meerkat Press 3rd March 2020