Early this year, I was prescribed a course of antibiotics. While I’m grateful to live in a time and place where such things are available, this medication did not like me. Not only did they leave a nasty taste in my mouth, they disturbed my sleep to the extent of fleetingly fragmenting my mind in a manner akin to psychosis. So I don’t need convincing of the importance of getting sufficient sleep to our psychological (and physical) well-being; but we can also get too hung up on sleep such that the associated anxiety can be almost as damaging as not sleeping. I drafted this post back in February when I saw that sleep was the theme of this year’s mental health awareness week; although that's now changed to kindness, with many suffering insomnia in lockdown, this post on sleep in my own reading and writing still seems worth sharing.
In another supposedly funny novel – although I found Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation desperately sad – an alienated young woman thinks that she can – and actually does – solve most of her problems through spending a year in a drug-induced stupor.
Caring for babies and young children is a common cause of sleeplessness that can leave parents, especially mothers, slightly unbalanced for years. In Kyra Wilder’s debut novel Little Bandaged Days the reader follows a young mother’s unravelling through a gradual process of sleeplessness, isolation and a determination to keep up appearances learnt at her mother’s knee. Besides being beautifully written, it’s a powerful argument for scepticism about an exhausted person’s gritted-teethed “I’m fine!”
A quick mention for two novels I’ve reviewed which have the word sleep in the title: In the City of Love’s Sleep by Lavinia Greenlaw is described by the publishers as “a contemporary fable about what it means to fall in love in middle age”; Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy is about the violence behind the beauty and apparent serenity of India.
My own novel, Underneath, about a man who seeks to resolve a relationship crisis by keeping a woman captive in a cellar, explores his gradual disintegration when things don’t go exactly to plan. Although ordinary on surface, his fragility is foreshadowed when, stressed by touching base with the past, he wakes in the night completely disorientated (p146):
No point calling out. Instead, I should make myself small, quiet, inoffensive; merge myself with the blankness of the blackboard until the danger swept past. Yet I couldn’t hold all the bits of myself together, I was all loose pieces and unwieldy shape. I was a squiggle of lines, a tangle of barbed wire, a muddy puddle, nothing that made sense. I had no shield, no shelter, no way to brace myself against attack. I heard a lamb’s bleat, an anguished squeak: my own voice betraying me to the monsters beyond.
Kindness wrapped itself around me, flesh cradled mine. Not cold, not hard, not loud or sharp: perhaps I might, against all odds, survive. The touch of skin on skin, arms around my body, a sweet smell I recognised, but couldn’t name.
“Shh, you’re safe now!” A whispering like a breeze.
If I discovered who she was, she might help me find a route back to myself. “Are you Miss Fothergill?”
“You’ve had a nightmare. Go back to sleep!”
My next novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, is about a brother and sister separated for fifty years against the backdrop of the longstay psychiatric hospital closures in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Although yet to undergo final edits, I can share a couple of snippets. In the first, Matty is exhausted, but cannot get to sleep in the hospital dormitory:
She is still awake when the guests retire. Now she must contend not only with her own mental disarray but the snuffling and snoring that is the external manifestation of theirs. Has she sufficient strength to smother them one by one with a pillow?
In this second extract, Henry, floored by a virus after being humiliated at work, is heading towards some hallucinatory experiences:
Some yob had put a match to the blue touch-paper and ignited a firework in his skull. It screeched, thumped, crashed from one side of his cranium to the other, generating heat enough to roast his carcass. When it finally burnt itself out, Henry had less than a second’s release before a different ruffian doused him with water and shoved him in a freezer, detaining him among shanks and hams and haunches until icicles hung from his nose and frost laced his pubic hair. Convulsions threatened to break his bones or, at the very least, a tooth. Then another brief respite before being thrown back on the bonfire. Some holiday!
Even his thoughts were dangerous. Half-formed ideas wrote themselves on scraps of tissue paper, Christmas cracker mottos of schoolboy puns sloppily translated from Chinese.
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Meanwhile, Charli’s flash fiction challenges get progressively weirder. How do I write a 99-word story about a long board? Even Matty was stumped initially; she thought of bed boards and sleeping like a board/log, but she couldn’t concentrate, being preoccupied with her abundant houseguests and the stresses of wartime restrictions:
Matty will extend the hand of friendship to anyone, but the manners of her current guests leave much to be desired. There are even men among the party, and bass notes do drum on her ears. She should not judge, for they know no better, but the fellow who sat opposite at breakfast slurped his tea.
Alas, she must continue to suffer their company. She cannot withdraw her hospitality with the world in disarray. Fortunately she has parlour games and monologues to entertain them. Matty will select exceptionally long board games to spread cheer throughout her boarders’ extended stay.