House of Sleep
By Jonathan Coe
First Published: 1999
Review © 2010 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Modern Fiction, Psychology
House of Sleep is a twisting love story that mixes dark comedy with mysteries and melodrama. The novels follows a cast of characters that are all connected to each other in some way or another through sleep disorders and their treatment. One of the main characters, Sara, suffers from a form of narcolepsy which is so severe that she sometimes has trouble distinguishing her dreams from reality. Sara finds this can profoundly affect her life and the lives of all of those around her.
The narrative in House of Sleep alternates between two timelines, the mid 1980s when most of the characters were college students together and a dozen years later when the dorm that most of the students lived in has been converted to a sleep clinic. The college narrative begins with Sara living with Gregory who seems to be obsessed with Sara’s sleep issues. When things go sour, Sara looks for love elsewhere and finds she has two people chasing her, one a woman and one a man. This is an obvious setup for complications. In addition, Sara’s narcolepsy greatly compounds the normal communication problems between friends and lovers. The results are sometimes hilarious and sometimes devastating.
With House of Sleep, Jonathan Coe weaves an intricate story with many interconnections. While the coincidences sometimes strain credibility, Coe does an impressive job of intertwining the lives of multiple characters amid the two timelines in a way that maximizes the emotional impact. The characters cover a wide range from sweet and likeable to arrogant and despicable to shallow and obsessive. As we get to know the likeable characters better, some of the scenes become heart wrenching. On the other hand, there are also scenes when unlikable characters fall victim to breakdowns in communication causing some terrifically funny scenes. I couldn’t stop from laughing out loud during a scene when the arrogant doctor goes to a doctor’s conference.
For subject matter, Coe creates both traditional and very untraditional love stories with nice explorations into sleep disorders and psychology. I always enjoy novels with an emphasis on psychology and I also enjoyed the material on sleep disorders. Coe has great fun in this novel exploring what can happen when extreme miscommunication occurs.The ending of this novel comes with a major twist which ties up the loose ends a little too neatly. It also pushes the limits of “doing anything for the sake of love” to the point where I couldn’t quite suspend my disbelief. However, I could manage to forgive these slight defects in the wake of enjoying a complex narrative filled with interesting characters, strong emotions, and terrific comic relief. For these reasons, I highly recommend House of Sleep.