The Right Hand of Sleep


This extraordinary debut novel from Whiting Writers’ Award winner John Wray is a poetic portrait of a life redeemed at one of the darkest moments in world history.

Twenty years after deserting the army in the first world war, Oskar Voxlauer returns to the village of his youth. Haunted by his past, he finds an uneasy peace in the mountains–but it is 1938 and Oskar cannot escape from the rising tide of Nazi influence in town. He attempts to retreat to the woods, only to be drawn ...

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Right Hand of Sleep

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This extraordinary debut novel from Whiting Writers’ Award winner John Wray is a poetic portrait of a life redeemed at one of the darkest moments in world history.

Twenty years after deserting the army in the first world war, Oskar Voxlauer returns to the village of his youth. Haunted by his past, he finds an uneasy peace in the mountains–but it is 1938 and Oskar cannot escape from the rising tide of Nazi influence in town. He attempts to retreat to the woods, only to be drawn back by his own conscience and the chilling realization that the woman whose love might finally save him is bound to the local SS commander. Morally complex, brilliantly plotted, and heartbreakingly realized, The Right Hand of Sleep marks the beginning of an important literary career.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Extraordinary; haunting.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Brilliant. . . . . A truly arresting work of fiction. . . . Is it really possible, the reader will wonder, for a young American to have written such a book?” –The New York Times Book Review

“Elegantly written, hypnotic.”–The Washington Post Book Review

“Studded with precise, exquisite descriptions. . . . Wray is capable of writing with almost painful tenderness....The Right Hand of Sleep make[s] another time seem astonishingly alive.” –Chicago Tribune

“[Wray] writes with an assurance that makes his [hero] both complex and compelling.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review

“One of the most gratifying events of the literary year . . . [The Right Hand of Sleep] satisfies on the deepest level of which fiction is capable.” –Memphis Commercial Appeal

“A taut, searing portrait.” –Literary Review [UK]

“Stark and evocativeÉ A finely drawn portrait of a man who finds peace with himself at a time when the rest of the world is falling apart.” –Time Out

From The Critics
In 1938, Oskar Voxlauer returns home to Niessen, Austria, just before the Nazi takeover. Still smarting from the effects of World War I and his subsequent desertion to the Ukraine, not to mention his father's suicide and his wife's death, Voxlauer holes up in a childhood friend's shack in the hills outside of a small town. But when he meets his neighbor Else and falls in love, trouble quickly follows. Else's cousin Kurt is the local Nazi overseer, devoted to Else but also pressured to punish Voxlauer, who is alarmed by the town's increasing support of the Third Reich. Wray's novel is hampered by several instances of inconsistent characterization. For example, when Voxlauer bashes Kurt's head against a tree during a scuffle, Kurt responds by sheepishly forgiving him (not exactly what one might expect from one of Hitler's enforcers). Equally confusing are the italicized sections that initially represent Voxlauer's flashback monologues but then turn into Kurt's own recollections late in the book. Such stylistic lapses weaken Wray's otherwise tight web of small-town relationships.
—Kevin Grandfield

(Excerpted Review)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The ghost hovering over this assured and astonishingly mature first novel is that of Joseph Roth, the great interwar Austrian novelist. Perhaps this reflects Wray's own double origin, as the son of an Austrian father and an American mother. Oskar Voxlauer, Wray's Austrian protagonist, was a teenage deserter from the Austro-Hungarian army in WWI. As the novel begins, he is returning to his native village, Niessen bei Villach, in 1938, after a 19-year stay in the Ukraine. His Russian lover's death has released him, and he is coming back in the middle of Hitler's Anschluss to see his lonely mother. To escape the tensions in Niessen, Oskar goes to work as a gamekeeper on a stretch of forest his Jewish tavernkeeper friend Ryslavy owns outside town. There he meets the old gamekeeper's daughter, Else Bauer, who lives under a vague cloud, having borne a daughter out of wedlock. The two are briefly happy together, but then Else's cousin, Kurt, returns to Austria from exile in Germany, as the head of the Nazis in Niessen. Kurt is also, Oskar quickly discovers, more to Else than a cousin. Oskar publicly opposes the Nazis; Kurt ambiguously patronizes him. Soon the triangle between Else, Oskar and Kurt becomes fraught with menace. The gloom of the dark days of late '30s Austria is heightened by Oskar's recollections of personal trauma: his wartime experiences; the suicide of his father, a famous opera composer; and the brutal collectivization of the Ukrainian countryside. Wray's first novel displays psychological acuity, a mastery of dialogue and an unfailing historical empathy, and should garner deserved raves. (Apr. 26) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A disillusioned Austrian soldier returns home from World War I after 20 years only to face a new moral and social dilemma. Oskar Voxlauer, son of a well-regarded family in his town, deserts his unit soon after arriving at the Italian front in 1917. He makes his way to the Ukraine in the days following the Russian Revolution, taking up with Anna, a Ukrainian widow. After her death, he returns home, finding work as a gamekeeper. History, in the form of the German annexation of Austria in 1938, soon intrudes on his solitude, however. Complicating matters, he becomes involved with Else, whose cousin is the local Nazi commander. The delicate d tente among the threesome disintegrates after hooligans vandalize a bar owned by Paul, a Jewish friend of Oskar, forcing him, in his own way, to take a stand. More a character study than a moral tale, this is a quietly memorable first novel. For most libraries.--Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Wray, a young writer of Austrian-American descent, slowly and surely creates a moving characterization of a casualty of both war and peace who finds himself both a son without a family and a man without a country. The story begins in 1917, when teenaged Oskar Voxlauer leaves his family and village to join the Austrian army. Then it shifts to 1938, and Oskar's return home for a brief reunion with his "Maman" (a former opera singer) and details about the death of his father (a suicide), before taking a job as gamekeeper on a remote property in the nearby mountains. Thereafter, Oskar's present experiences (with old acquaintances and with a new love, an embittered woman named Else) alternate with italicized passages recalling his wartime experiences, culminating in the act that caused him to desert and undertake a 20-year "exile" among "Bolsheviks" in the Ukraine. Inevitably, the shadow of Hitler's gathering momentum falls across all the lives that Oskar is involved with. The Nazi juggernaut is incarnated in the quietly menacing figure of Else's cousin Kurt Bauer, a young Obersturmführer whose combative conversations with Oskar encapsulate tensions soon to explode in open violence. Wray paces this dark story expertly: once crucial revelations about Oskar's combat days have been made, suspense is maintained by increased concentration on the enigmatic Kurt, whose rise through the SS ranks is itself charted in vivid italicized segments. The rhythmic alternation between past and present is handled adroitly, and the soberly realistic scenes are enlivened by precise, evocative descriptive writing ("Fox and weasel tracks scattered in all directions over the powder [of a light snowfall]andshowed clean as picture negatives on the gravel underneath"). A first novel that's really about something, blessedly free of authorial navel-gazing.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375706400
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/28/2002
  • Series: Vintage Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 1,439,795
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

John Wray lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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Read an Excerpt

October 12, 1917
A boy came out of the house first, the crumbling, sun-yellowed house with the dark tiles and ivied sides, the peaked roof and sandstone steps down which he went stiffly, nervously, adjusting the plaid schoolboy’s backpack on his shoulders. A tall stooping boy in his middle teens, smiling to himself as he waited by the gate, breathing quickly. It was a bright fall day and he closed his eyes for a moment, feeling the sunlight through his eyelids there at the garden’s edge.

Soon the others came, a man and a woman, the parents of the boy. The man moved slowly, his cream-colored suit well ironed but billowy, as though cut for someone larger. His features like his clothes seemed oversized or borrowed, a loose cluster of tics behind which his eyes hung uncertainly, moving from the boy to the trellises to the old house behind them. The woman walked half a pace behind the man, guiding him by the elbow down the steps. She was still young. She carried herself proudly and severely. Hearing them the boy opened his eyes. He was still smiling slightly, and looking at them as he smiled, but the smile was not meant for them and when he realized this he drew his lips together. He stood at the gate for what seemed a very long time, watching them coming. Finally they reached him and the three of them went out onto the street.

Linking arms they walked toward the mortared gray wall of the canal and the brightly colored rooftops behind it. A smell of woodsmoke was in the air. At the canal they left the road and turned onto a narrow lane. The woman was watching the boy silently, her left arm braced against her husband. He and the boy were talking to each other in low, even tones, but she was not listening to them. The man’s eyes as he spoke were not on the boy or on the ground ahead of them but instead on some far-off thing, as they always were. The boy talked on, not listening to the talk itself but talking only to fill the minutes, eyes rarely leaving his father’s face. From time to time he let out an embarrassed laugh.

After some minutes they came to a wide gravel avenue curling out from town over a mortared bridge. They stayed there awhile looking down into the water. Before long a young, doughy-faced man came up the avenue on a bicycle. The woman waved to him and he pulled up in front of them.

—Well, Oskar, said the man, grinning down at the boy.

—Your number’s come up at last, has it?

—Yes, Uncle.

—Yes. Well, we’re damn proud, all of us. Hopping proud.

—We’re not proud at all, Gustl, said the woman.

The man on the bicycle grinned again.

—Mothers take these things hard, old man, he said, tapping the boy’s shoulder.

—“We have all of us our burthens,” as the ditty goes.

—Why aren’t you in Italy yet, Uncle? said the boy.

—Palpitations, Oskar. You know very well. Palpitations, damn them. He sighed.

—Still. There’s need of good men on the home front as well, as the Kaiser says. Eh, Karl?

The boy’s father made a low sound, possibly of assent, looking down the avenue through the lines of whitewashed willow trunks toward the station.

—We’d best be going on, Gustl, said the woman quietly.

—You’ll be round tonight for supper?

—Yes, yes, Dora. He drew in a breath, looked down at the boy and gave a wink.

—Well, Oskar: do your duty by those greasy olive-pickers. Stack ‘em straight for your nearest and dearest.

—That’s enough, now, Gustl, said the woman.

—God in heaven.

—Good-bye, Uncle. I’ll do my best.

—Damn right you will.

—The train, Dora, said his father, stepping forward.

Walking down the Bahnhofstrasse with his parents on either side of him, hurrying to the station, the boy was struck for the first time by the significance of what was happening to him and looked back often over his shoulder. Framed by the cut-back willow rows, encircled and held toward the sun by the mountain behind it, the town looked like nothing so much as an antique jeweler’s miniature, sliding away with a clicking of wheels and cogs into the pines. He realized that it was beautiful and at the same time that it was vanishing from his life. His mother was talking to him now, rapidly, urgently; his father was walking as quickly as he was able, wheezing and opening his eyes wide with every breath. It occurred to the boy that he hadn’t looked at his mother since they’d left the house and he knew this must hurt her but still he could not do it. I know what she looks like, he thought. I know what she looks like right now. I don’t need to see her.

—Have you taken enough warm things, Oskar? she was saying.

—Have you taken enough winter clothes?

—Maman, he said, laughing a little.

—I can’t wear just whatever I like, you know. They’ll be wanting me in a uniform. He looked over at his father, who nodded gravely.

His mother’s voice resumed immediately, tight with worry, humorless.

—Do you find this so very funny, Karl?

—A little funny, Dora. Not so much.

—I was thinking more about your underclothes, Oskar, his mother said, pulling him forward. His father let out a quiet laugh behind them.

At the station the boy presented his conscription card and was issued a ticket. There were a number of other families on the platform but he stood with his parents a small distance away, look- ing in the direction from which the train would come. One of the women was sobbing noisily and clutching at her two sons, twins with thick shoulders and flattened reddish hair who muttered and made faces at each other.

—Who are these people? the boy’s mother said.

—Who is that woman, Karl, with those two boys? She frowned.

—I swear I don’t know one single person here at all.

—You do know them, Maman, the boy said, looking at his father and rolling his eyes.

—Franz and Christian Rindt. Their brother, Willi, runs the new gasthaus across the square from Ryslavy’s. And you know the Hoffenreichs behind them. Erich, Maria and Peter.

—Well, his mother said, straightening herself.

—For me there will always be one gasthaus in Niessen: the Niessener Hof. She looked over at her husband, who stared resolutely up the tracks. Her lips were tightly drawn and she looked prim and comical. As though she’s just eaten a piece of wax-dipped fruit, the boy said to himself. Everything she is is joyless, and not just because of Père. She was like that before, too, when he was better. Your finest country lady. He thought again that if the war hadn’t called him he’d have found another way to leave, with or without their blessing, before very long.

—We’re all cut from the same cloth in times of war, Maman, said the boy.

—Our Kaiser tells us so.

His father raised a hand to cover his mouth.

—Go on, his mother said.

—Go on, Karl. Laugh at that. But she was smiling now as well.

At that moment someone pointed and the three of them turned to see the first jet of steam coiling over the trees.

—Well, Oskar, said his mother calmly. She had taken hold of him by his shoulders and was looking him over exactingly and slowly, studying him, her eyes wide and determined. In case I don’t come back, the boy thought, turning the thought back and forth in his mind to get the feeling of it. He looked past her at his father who was watching the train approaching, motionless and enraptured, as if this were the inescapable thing he’d been awaiting. It isn’t this, all the same, the boy thought. It isn’t this. But this reminds him of it.
For the space of a minute none of them said a word. Behind them Frau Rindt was still weeping and shouting in her heavy hill-town drawl against the war.

—Keep a journal, Oskar, his father said when the train was almost to the station.

—Will you do that for me? All the inane details, les temps absurdités . . . yes? I’m sure there’ll be plenty. Send it to me in installments, with your letters. I did that for my own Père, when I had my time in Dalmazien. He was smiling now.

—Will you? His voice was very mild, almost beseeching.

The boy glanced at his mother.

—Would that help you, Père? he said slowly.

His father nodded.

—I’d consider it a kindness. It saved your old grandfather, in his day, from expiring of boredom. He raised his shoulders slowly, doggedly, as though resisting a pull upward.

—You’ll spare me that, won’t you, Oskar? Wasting slowly away in this pretty backwater, decaying into dust?

—Now, Karl, said the boy’s mother, suddenly severe again.

—I’m sorry, Dora. A little joke.

—We can’t have this, Karl. Not now. Are you listening?

—It’s all right, Maman, for Christ’s sake, said the boy.

—Let it alone, he said, already hearing the noise of the train behind him.

—I’m sorry, Dora, said his father.

—A little joke with the boy, that’s all. We’ll never see him again, you know.

—Karl! she said now, beginning to tremble.

—Please, Maman. Let him be. Please.

—Oskar, she said, laying hold of his arm. Then the train was beside them.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2001

    Intriguing but flawed

    Wray's story of an Austrian World War I deserter who comes home just in time for the Anschluss is a very compelling. Moreover, his use of alternating flashbacks and traditional narration is very appealing. In particular, the first-person account of the Dolfuss assassination is very well conceived. There are stylistic flaws in the novel, however, which make it unnecessarily difficult for a reader with no knowledge of German, let alone Austrian history. Wray insists on referring to the Austrian state of Carinthia by its German name, Kaernten; but he calls Bavaria and Tyrol by their English names (not Bayern and Tirol). Some official titles are left in German, others in English. His syntax is often so awkward, it is as if the book had been poorly translated from German -- even though Wray wrote it originally in English. For example, he colloquially refers to the police as 'the bulls,' rather than 'the cops.' Also, I would have liked more development of the personality and background of Paul Ryslavy, the leading Jewish character in the novel. Despite its shortcomings, for a reader with an interest in Austrian history or literature, it is a must-read. Those interesting Holocaust-era literature, however, are likely to be disappointed.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2001

    incredible book, my favorite of the year

    John Wray has accomplished something remarkable with this book: he has made what I think is a masterpiece past its time.

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