We all go mad when we can’t sleep in the middle of the night. Surely everybody knows that?
The novelist Samantha Harvey didn’t. Until recently, she’d always slept well. But then, in her early forties, problems began. She moved to a house on a main road and traffic woke her early. In June 2016 her sleep was further disturbed by anger at the result of the European referendum. By the end of the year she had become an insomniac and tried all sorts of cures, from over the counter remedies, like Nytol and CBD oil, to prescription drugs, like Zopiclone and Diazepam. She went to a CBT sleep clinic, she tried acupuncture and dietary supplements.
She attempted to ease her way through the night by doing jigsaw puzzles, listening to episodes of In Our Time and watching Poldark and The Crown. Nothing worked. Matters were made worse by a spate of bad news, like hearing of the death of her cousin, found in his flat two days after he had died. By now she was experiencing around three or four nights a week of no sleep at all. She became unable to work and increasingly feral, moaning and pulling at her hair.
Yet the first line of Harvey’s most recent novel had been this blithe remark: “Dust and ashes though I am, I sleep the sleep of angels.” Now she’s shocked by these words. “The person who wrote it didn’t know anything,” she says. Fiction itself, she concludes, is nothing less than organised fraud, dishonestly appropriating the experience of others. “Our little fraudster had a thousand more words than she had experiences; she was compelled to lie.”
So here, instead, is no novel, but a memoir of her insomnia that does not attempt to impose shape on shapeless experience: her own personal version of the contemporary abnegation of fictional authority.
She throws it all in: memories of her childhood, the text of a short story she is working on, her fear of the menopause, her regrets about childlessness, her encounters with her doctor (who astutely advises her: “No catastrophising”), her experience of being assaulted once in Australia, her fascination with Daniel Everett’s great books about the Pirahã people of the Amazon whose language has no past or future tenses, her joy in wild swimming and again her anger about Brexit, factory farming, death and the way people speed through her village.
“My mind is a cacophony,” she says — and her memoir, vividly well written in parts, is true to that, an unholy mess. “I see all this as indulgent, self-centred and a little mad,” she concedes at one point. Just so. Not ideal comfort reading then, for when we all go mad in the middle of the night.