Jonathan Coe’s novel about obsession, love, sleep and dreams follows a group of students, moving between their lives as students and 12 years later. We are told in the beginning that the odd-numbered chapters are set in 1983-84 and the even-numbered ones in 1996. But although it moves between two periods, most of it takes place in and around the same house: Ashdown. This is where the group live as students and the location of the sleep clinic in 1996.
Sarah Tudor is a narcoleptic; she is unable to control her sleep and can doze off at any time. She also has vivid dreams that she has trouble distinguishing from reality. When the book begins she is dating Gregory Dudden, a psychology student, who is a bit of a jerk (to put it politely). Gregory likes standing over sleeping people “as they lay helpless, unconscious, while he, the watching subject, retained full control over his waking mind”. Terry Worth, a film student, sleeps 14 hours a day because he has the most exquisite dreams, which he can barely remember. Sometimes images flash through his mind, which he tries to pin down, “only to watch them recede into spreading blankness or feel them trickle through his fingers like sand”. So it’s not surprising that he becomes obsessed with an unseen film by a little-known Italian director. Then there is Robert, a friend of Terry’s, who falls obsessively in love with Sarah, who, in turn, breaks up with Gregory and falls in love with Veronica.
Fast forward to 1996 (although that’s not really how the book works—it drifts back and forth between the two periods). Robert has disappeared. Gregory has set up a sleep clinic, ostensibly to cure people of sleep ailments, but in reality to cater to his obsession of beating sleep, which he sees as a disease that robs people of time. Working with him is Dr. Madsen, a woman who is in every way the opposite of Gregory—human, empathetic and funny. Terry Worth’s dreams have vanished, and he has become an insomniac and a well-known film critic, prolific because he can work all night. He registers at the clinic, claiming he hasn’t slept for years: an ideal subject for Gregory to prove his theory that you can live better without sleep.
As the story moves between the past and the present, the events of the past are superimposed on the present. Chapters sometimes close on unfinished sentences, which are completed in the next chapter by another character in another context and another time. Coe throws in tantalizing clues, often in a blink-and-you-miss-it way. What happened to Robert? Why does Ruby Sharp, a little girl whom Sarah used to babysit when she was a student, try to contact Sarah after all these years? Why does a little girl in Sarah’s class look vaguely familiar?
I know it sounds complicated, but the way Coe tells the story, it’s not. There is a fluidity between the shifts in time. There are a few crazy coincidences in the way that the characters move in and out of each other’s lives, but their lives are so enmeshed that there is no getting away from each other. It does get a little over the top towards the end, and there were twists in the tale that I didn’t see coming. I do have to say that it is a testament to Coe’s story telling that he manages to keep it all together without driving his readers to distraction. This reader had trouble putting the book down and finished it over a weekend! A clever, intriguing book.