“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!