Monday, 8 September 2014

Book Review: The House of Sleep

These past few days I've been a dedicated artist and a voracious reader, but I haven't managed a great deal of writing. The reading time has been perfect for chilling out with my rats, and the art is for a secret project that I'm working on that needs doing ASAP. So my novel has been sat for a few days, in that strange state it sometimes enters where I'm between plot arcs and waiting for things to pick up again.

On the subject of books, I now have a HUGE stack of Agatha Christie novels to get through:

I also have a book on the way and another pre-ordered; en route is Haruki Murakami's latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which I'm led to believe is something along the lines of Norwegian Wood. The pre-order is something I'm so excited about; Patrick Rothfuss has written a story about one of my favourite characters from his awesome series The Kingkiller Chronicle. It's called The Slow Regard of Silent Things, it's about Auri, it will probably be as poetic and amazing as the name suggests, and my copy will be SIGNED BY THE MAN HIMSELF. WOO. I AM STOKED.

But anyway, the real reason I'm here is to write about my latest read...


Oh wow, I love Jonathan Coe. I discovered his work back in Sixth Form when my tastes in music led me to his novel The Rotter's Club (Hatfield and the North, excellent band ♥), and since then I've loved every book of his that I've had the pleasure to read. 

The House of Sleep takes place between two time frames; the odd-numbered chapters take place in the past (largely in 1983-84, and some a bit later on), while the even-numbered chapters show us the characters in their present, in June 1996. 

Coe provides us with a cast of characters who are in their own ways eccentric, unsettled, sympathetic and fascinating. There's Sarah, a narcoleptic, whose dreams are so mundane, yet detailed and vivid, that she has difficulty distinguishing them from reality; the innocent and devoted Robert, whose life seems governed by misunderstandings and the realities Sarah thinks she's living through her dreams; insomniac film critic Terry who goes from sleeping for fourteen hours a day in his youth to needing barely any sleep at all; and Dr Gregory Dudden, whose obsession with sleep leads him to think of it as a disease that must be wiped out. In the Eighties, all are university students living together at the remote house called Ashdown. In 1996, Ashdown is home to Dr Dudden's sleep clinic.

Some reviewers would have you believe that the novel starts slow, but Sarah's encounter with a furious man in the street means the novel hits the ground running and introduces her to a character and a movement that will prove pivotal to her life. We see the disastrous end to her relationship with Gregory and the start of Robert's struggle with his feelings for her. 

Like a typical Coe novel, The House of Sleep is full of misunderstandings and coincidences that might seem too convenient to believe - if that kind of thing makes you roll your eyes then walk away, but otherwise you'll enjoy a novel where the characters' lives are so deeply intertwined you might wonder whether some greater force is holding them together. That connection remains across the years, though some of the characters meet less than kind fates - there were a few moments where I had to put the book down and think 'damn you, Coe!'.

Coe explores with appropriate sensitivity the themes of lesbian love and sexuality, feminism and transexualism, enduring love, consciousness, media and reality. Through Sarah's initial tolerance of Gregory, the end of her relationship with Veronica and the way Robert hangs on to his feelings for her to the point where he changes his whole life, Coe explores the things people will do and put up with when they are in love. He shows to us strong feminist women (e.g. Veronica) in a university campus with a strong anti-feminist movement, and through Veronica, Sarah's growing awareness of feminism and her own sexuality. But he also shows us how the characters discover and rediscover themselves over the years. 

It's interesting how some of the past/present chapters flow into each-other. Sometimes it's a bit jarring but it shows us the strong connection of events over the years and how even a decade later the characters are all essentially tangled up in the same web of relationships and drama and intrigue. The novel is clearly structured as a whole, though; I had a few moments of confusion only because my edition (the e-book) had the author's note about odd and even chapters at the back with the appendices, where in the print version I believe it's at the front. Even so, you realise what time you're in as you keep reading, as Coe draws stark distinctions between the characters, the university town and Ashdown in both time periods.

The only thing that I feel lets this novel down is the lack of depth compared to some of the other books that Coe has written which are set in past decades - which are full of references to current events, themes and pop culture that really brings the era to life. The characters, while likeable, feel as though they haven't got much of a backstory beyond what is absolutely vital to the plot, but then this might just be down to efficiency on Coe's part. 

Overall, The House of Sleep is an enjoyable, masterfully written novel. It's comedic, tragic, mysterious and enthralling, and you even feel for the plight of the minor characters. It's a decent size (print editions are around 350 pages), and while it may lack the depth of some of Coe's other books, it's gripping to the point where I managed to get through the whole book in two hours. Coe is an excellent writer; while the plot, on the surface, sounds like something that might suit a science fiction novel more than a work of literary fiction, he handles it admirably well and draws the reader into his beautiful, thought-provoking book.

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