The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey
The Shapeless Unease is an unsettling and “vividly well-written” memoir of insomnia, said David Sexton in the London Evening Standard. Until recently, the novelist Samantha Harvey had always slept soundly, Then, in her early 40s, problems surfaced. She moved house, and began to be woken early by traffic. Anger at the Brexit vote disturbed her further. Finding herself in the grip of full-blown insomnia, Harvey tried all sorts of cures: from over-the-counter remedies (Nytol, CBD oil) to prescription drugs, acupuncture and dietary supplements, to midnight jigsaw puzzles and episodes of In Our Time. Nothing worked. Three or four nights a week she didn’t sleep at all. “She became unable to work and increasingly feral, moaning and pulling at her hair.” This book is a record of twelve fragmented, distressing months.
Structurally, The Shapeless Universe resembles a “patchwork quilt”, said Christina Patterson in The Mail on Sunday. Accounts of Harvey’s sleeplessness jostle with other elements: a letter to her recently deceased cousin, fragments of a short story about a man robbing a cashpoint, memories of her parents’ divorce. “If this all sounds a bit mad, it is.” And yet the point of this “lurching around from subject to subject, from memory to memory”, is to make us feel as if “we, too, are in Harvey’s sleep-starved brain”. Rarely has the condition of sleeplessness been so powerfully described. It’s a “mesmerising” book, written with “poetic precision”. What it certainly won’t do is help you get over your insomnia, said Helen Davies in The Sunday Times. Readers expecting “tips on improving your sleep hygiene” will be disappointed. Harvey doesn’t make clear how she “conquered her night-time demons”. Yet readers may find something equally valuable: “an erudite companion to help them through the dark times”.