Posted on 29th June 2012

By Cathryn Summerhayes, literary agent at William Morris Endeavor

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Fiction Uncovered by…Cathryn Summerhayes, literary agent at William Morris Endeavor

“My first introduction to author of the lauded What a Carve Up! (and others) Jonathan Coe, known primarily as a comical/satirical fiction writer, came in university, where I was studying English Literature and was on a course called ‘Reviewing the late 20th-Century Novel’ – this clearly ages me. I’m amazed that I read The House of Sleep SUCH a long time ago and remember so much about it.  I was obsessed with it – and it is still in my top ten years later.

The House of Sleep was published in 1998 by Penguin.  It is 1983 and a group of students play out a pretty typical student life, staying up too late, sleeping with each other, falling in and out of love.  Time passes, they drift apart and think little more of each other until ten years later, when they are all brought together unexpectedly in a sleep disorders clinic, each affected by a different sleep-related illness.  Sarah is a narcoleptic who finds it hard to tell the difference between her waking dreams and her real life.  Robert’s life is not affected by his own sleep disorder but by the confusions caused by Sarah’s narcoleptic visions and insomniac Terry spends his nights over-dosing on movies, causing his sleep deprived brain to confuse the happenings of his real life with those he’s witnessed on the silver screen.  They are all under the care of Dr Gregory Dudden, who believes that sleep is an illness itself, gradually eating away at the lives of those who succumb to it on a daily basis.

Coe sets alternating chapters in 1983 and 1993, which itself can be as disorientating as a dream, and I remember furiously flicking back and forward through the book to work out the chronology of the events that take place. There is something incredibly hypnotic about the book and the characters, who seem to exist in a half-world between wake and sleep. The pacing is thriller-like, yet the love story that plays out is subtle and emotionally devastating. Coe builds the tension and you know that something cataclysmic is going to take place. Like a nightmare you are desperate to turn away from the tragedy that inevitably takes place, but there is no turning back once Coe sets you off on his mesmerising journey.

Ironically, it’s the perfect book to go to bed with!



rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy

29th June 2012 at 12:55

How funny that you should mention this novel. Long ago, before Amazon wishlists, I saw a review of it and put it on a written wishlist I kept in my diary. Not everything I liked then would appeal to me now, probably – but this still does. I’m off to finish what I started then.


Neil Rowland

14th January 2013 at 18:31

Superb that an agent describes how a novel has made such an indelible effect on her, that books should matter that much and be a shaping feature of life. Ironic that one such book for Cathryn is Coe’s House of Sleep, when too often fiction is used either to pass a journey or to get more quickly to sleep. As long as we inspire such love in readers then literature can/will flourish. A siren call against the literary cynics.

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