Tag Archives: Night Waking

Sleep in Fiction

Through most of my life sleep has seemed a waste of time. Other people seem to relish it, want more of it, but I have always felt that I would rather be reading, writing, knitting, talking or even awake.

I know that sleep has a function for humans, not fully understood, with both physical and psychological effects. So a recent bout of bad sleeping focused my mind on sleep in fiction. Considering we spend about one third of our lives asleep it is strange that it does not feature more in novels. 

It is useful for novelists as a passage into the next scene. It is used when writers want their main character to emerge from sleep in a befuddled state so they can be surprised by something they take time to understand. Another function is that the sleeper when awoken suddenly is more credulous, or more willing to write off what they have witnessed during the night. And the lack of sleep, as we know, can be very disorienting. 

You can find dreams, any number of dreams, in fiction. Dreams that foretell, or warn, or explain, or reveal the turmoil in the characters’ minds. But dreams are not the focus of this post.

Here are four works of fiction in which sleep plays an important role

  1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte 
  2. Night Waking by Sarah Moss
  3. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  4. Insomnia by Stephen King

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

First Edition of Jane Eyre 1847

We know that our heroine is in trouble again when she is awoken in Thornfield Hall by a woman’s hysterical laughter in the night. Soon after this Jane saves Mr Rochester from being burnt alive during the night. She is told that these events are caused by Grace Poole, but the madwoman in the attic is not Grace Poole. She is of course an inconvenient wife. This is how we are introduced to Mr Rochester’s dark secret and the revelation is the cause of yet another reversal in Jane’s fortunes.

Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011)

As the title suggests the tensions in this novel come from lack of sleep. Anna Bennett, her husband Giles and their two children are spending the summer on Colsay, a St Kilda-like island. She is suffering from lack of sleep. She also suffers from lack of time to finish her book and from lack of internet connection. Her husband counts puffins and seems unaware of her struggles.

Anna’s story becomes serious when the skeleton of a baby is discovered near their house. This leads her to spend time checking the history of the island, its inhabitants and absentee landowners. Her story is interwoven with letters from May, a young woman from Victorian times, who tried to bring better birthing practices to the island’s inhabitants. Eventually the two stories coincide.

The novel is written in the first person and the humour is found in the authenticity of her chaotic life and her commentary upon it. At one point it seems as if ghosts are about to intrude. In the end all these difficulties are revealed to be functions of sleep deprivation. And by the end Anna has moved into relative freedom from her children’s sleeplessness and recommitted to her marriage. Recommended reading by many people I know.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman found society’s attitude to women deeply repugnant and she was a critic of their treatment. In this long short story she describes how a woman is treated (medically and psychologically) in order to bring her to the proper attitudes of a wife. It was based on her own experience.

The narrator undergoes a rest cure, in a room in which the wall paper is a hideous yellow. Her husband is a physician and it is his prescription. She is required to do nothing and takes to sleeping more and more during the day as she can’t sleep at night. The act of sleeping emphasises her helplessness. She gradually identifies with a woman she sees in the wallpaper, and escapes.

Insomnia by Stephen King (1994)

I have not read this horror story, but I refer to it as it came up repeatedly when I googled some variation of novels/fictions and sleep. When I looked up the plot on Wikipedia I was mystified, but it centred on a main character who sees things as a result of insomnia.

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin (2018)

And I recommend this memoir:

A sublime view of the treasures and torments to be found in wakefulness. Entertaining and existential, the brightest star in this erudite, nocturnal reverie in search of lost sleep, is the beauty of the writing itself. (Deborah Levy)

This slim book sits on my bedside table and I dip into its paragraphs and reflections on insomnia and sleep as required. 

Over to you …

Have you any suggestions of novels where sleep is important to add to my selection?

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

I was right. This was the ideal book to take on a train journey. Sadly my return journey was delayed by four hours, and I had finished the book before my train finally arrived. For anyone who is interested in train services, I had been walking with a very good friend in the woods and along the escarpment north of Pewsey. Trains from Pewsey back to the South West were all either severely delayed or, more alarmingly, cancelled. A lovely walk, a great book, but waiting for hours on Pewsey station was not good.

Ghost Wallby Sarah Moss

It is the 80s. A family is spending their summer holiday re-enacting an Iron Age camp in Northumberland, along with a professor and three students. The story is narrated by 17-year-old Silvie (also called Sil). The holiday is the idea of Sil’s father, an autodidact and Iron Age enthusiast. It emerges that he has a rather simplistic idea of ancient history, seeing any invaders from the Romans onwards as pollutants of the pure British race. In other words he is more than a little xenophobic. Her father is a bus driver, and a very controlling man with a filthy temper if he thinks he is being mocked or patronised for his lack of formal education. He beats both wife and daughter. 

The re-enactors must consider what is authentic and how to manage an authentic Iron Age life in the 1980s.For example, they must forage for their food but can take a book with them to check for possible nourishment. They also catch skin and eat rabbits and fish. The local Spar store secretly provides more alluring foods.

Sylvia, the narrator, has a healthy response to the idea of authenticity and how history is created in the interests of those who retell it, such as her father. She is aware that history will always reflect the power structures and the concerns of the present. How, she wonders, did Iron Age women and girls manage their periods. 

The professor and Silvie’s father seek what they believe to be ever more authentic experiences and come up with the idea of the ghost wall. This is thought to have been a defensive wall with skulls of enemies on top to put fear into the hearts of any attackers. They make their own wall and use skulls they have found, such as from a cow or sheep, and the rabbit skulls.

And then they decide to re-enact the human sacrifice that is known about from the well-preserved remains of people in peat bogs. We have learned about a girl’s sacrifice in the novel’s prologue. According to the professor, the idea is to sacrifice something that is very precious.  Sil is aware of what her father will choose and as things begin to unravel the story moves towards its terrible climax.

Family Relationships

Sil’s family is toxic. Her father is abusive and violent, and both mother and child suffer from his whims and from his reaction to being humiliated or defied. The outcomes of his patriarchal attitudes are dark and dangerous.

Sil’s mother should make an effort to protect her, but she has given up any resistance. It is one of the students, Molly, who befriends and stands up for Sil. Molly represents the freedom that Sil anticipates when she leaves home. 

Silvie herself has all the self-consciousness of a young girl who has been kept apart from the world. In this passage she is explaining her name to the students on the first day.

So, said Dan, Silvie, what, short for Sylvia? Sulevia, I said. I was about to say, as I had been doing since I first started school, she was an Ancient British goddess, my dad chose it, but they were already exchanging glances. Sulevia’s a local deity, said Dan. Jim was talking about her the other day. Northumbrian goddess of springs and pools, co-opted by the Romans, said Molly.  […] Yeah, she said, OK but your dad’s not a historian, right, how did he know about her if you’re not local? I could feel myself turning red. He’s a bus driver, I said, history’s just a hobby, he wanted me to have a proper native British name. I saw glances again.  (18-9)

Reading this book

As I say, it is a short book, but written powerfully. The quotation above illustrates the momentum of the prose, uninterrupted by speech marks or line gaps. Maggie O’Farrell refers to this forward drive and is quoted on the front cover saying,

Ghost Wall  requires you to put your life on hold while you finish it. 

Sarah Moss has already shown her ability to tell the story of a young woman frightened from her own imagination and trapped where she can see no escape. I’m referring to Night Waking, published in 2011. A young woman spends the summer on an island with her two small children and finds herself deprived of sleep and immersed in the story of a dead baby and its mother. You can find my review of that novel here. Also recommended. 

Sarah Moss writes so well. Ghost Wall  made the long-list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, but many readers were disappointed that it did not appear on the short-list. You can find both lists (and all previous winners) here.

I recommend it highly. 

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, published in 2018 by Granta. 152pp

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Books and Walking, Reading, Reviews, Travel with Books

Island Novels

Setting a novel on an island allows the writer to use a dramatic device, limited physical range for their characters. Their characters must respond to the boundaries created by the sea, and they are usually trapped with whoever else might be on the island. Here are a few novels that have used an island setting.

Night Waking by Sarah Moss

265 Night Waking

Anna Bennet and her husband and two children are spending the summer on a St Kilda-like island. With a young child she is suffering from lack of sleep, and from lack of time to finish her book, connected to her fellowship at Oxford. Her husband counts puffins and seems unaware of her struggles.

A skeleton of a baby is discovered near their house and Anna spends some time checking the history of the island, its inhabitants and absentee landowners. A parcel of letters is found in the chimney from a young woman in Victorian times who tried to bring better birthing practices to the island’s inhabitants.

By the end of the novel Anna has moved into relative freedom from her children and recommitted to her marriage. She has helped a family who have come as trial guests to the holiday home on the island and decided that her older son needs a little help with his rather bizarre fixation on death and catastrophe.

Written in the first person, the narrator seems quite mad at times, and as if ghosts are about to intrude. In the end these are revealed to be functions of sleep deprivation, as the title indicates.

Night Waking by Sarah Moss, published by Granta in 2011.

Sarah Moss has a new novel, The Tidal Zone, published in July by Granta.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

265 Snow Falling

A Japanese-American fisherman is on trial for the murder of a German-American fisherman on the island of San Piedro off the north west coast of America. Tensions are high. There is a snow storm that further limits the characters. There is a long history of family arguments about land, and of ancient love affairs. The story unfolds, revealing some racism, some old fashioned liberalism, a great deal of loss and some huge misunderstandings and disappointments. All is more or less resolved.

I found that there were too many long back-stories of some less significant characters, almost as if Guterson had included the outcomes of activities suggested in a creative writing workshop for knowing the characters. The writing is superb, however.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, published by Bloomsbury in 1994. 404pp

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Although the story is set on the island of Skye, much of this novel does not really fit my theme, but it needs no excuse to be recommended yet again. The model for the holiday was in fact Cornwall, the location of the Stephen family’s annual summer holidays.

Before the First World War the Ramsay family is on holiday on Skye. The plan to go to the lighthouse the next day is jeopardised by the weather. The family and house guests go about their activities, walking on the beach, listening to the great Mr Ramsay and reading to James. Mrs Ramsay presides over a dinner party. Ten years go by, and the house is neglected. There are deaths and a marriage turns sour, everyone gets older and the Great War engulfs Europe. Many of the original house party return to Skye. Mr Ramsay sails with his two youngest children to the lighthouse. This is a novel to be read not for the story but for the evocation of impressions, responses, and insights of her characters.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf published in 1927 by the Hogarth Press.

And …

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

This one is from the older women in fiction series. It’s partly a meditation on a grandmother-granddaughter relationship, but also a dreamy rendition of summers spent on an island on the Finnish coast. I’m not even sure if it’s counted as fiction, but it is a moving book.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, published in 2003 by Sort of Books. Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.

80 Summer Bk cover

Shipping News E Annie Proulx

Another great novel, where every character has limitations, and every character is challenged by the rugged conditions of Newfoundland, the weather, and the events of their own life. The island keeps the community together.

Shipping News E Annie Proulx (1993). Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the US National Book award. An excellent film was made of this book.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (2014)

Winner Man Booker Prize 2015

Being a prize winning novel that is set in Jamaica, but is neither brief or about only seven killings.

Over to you …

265 The LeopardWhat other novels are there? Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, set in Sicily.

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

17 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Virginia Woolf

Memento Mori and Night Waking: two short reviews

Who would have thought that moving house, specifically unpacking cardboard boxes, could consume so much time? It is time I would rather have spent on writing, including writing for the blog. Today I am posting two short reviews. They are not connected, except in being books I have read recently, although both treat quite dark themes with a strong leavening of humour. The first can be linked to my theme of novels with strong older women characters. The older male characters are strongly drawn as well.

52 Mem Mori

Muriel Spark Memento Mori

This novel is short, bizarre, almost macabre, but is quite redeemed by its comedy. Published in 1959 and set in the ‘50s, the story concerns a connected group of older people.

Dame Lettie Colston (a philanthropist who behaves with no charity) has received phone calls commanding her – ‘Remember you must die’. Lettie does not wish to remember, and has reported the calls to the police. Her brother, Godfrey, (owner of the Colston works) is concerned for her, until he receives his own calls and then his concern is all for himself. His wife Charmian, a novelist, quite accepts the reminder when she receives it. Other characters also receive the call: Alec Warner, who is researching gerontology, taking copious notes about the effects of aging on people, including himself; the poet, Percy Mannering, who can do nothing without being loud and shouty (including spending a windfall on an excessively long telegram about another poet).

In this novel the characters are living in their 70+ years as they did when they were younger – using and deceiving other people, being cruel, blaming, lying to and exploiting each other. They pursue vendettas, try to get even, settle old scores, behave as badly as ever.

Miss Taylor, once Charmian Colston’s maid, now an inhabitant of a hospital ward for old women (referred to as grannies), has a theory about the calls. It will do.

‘In my belief,’ she said, ‘the author of the anonymous telephone calls is Death himself, as you might say. I don’t see, Dame Lettie, what you can do about it. If you don’t remember death, Death reminds you to do so. And if you can’t cope with the facts the next best thing is to go away for a holiday.’ (p179)

Those that live as though they will never die are the most troubled by the phone calls. Everyone is at the mercy of the physical expressions of aging. Guy Leet, writing his memoirs, for example, is finding it hard going. ‘The laboriousness of the task resided in the physical, not the mental effort. His fingers worked slowly, clutched round the large barrel of his fountain pen …’ (p185)

This is not a pleasant group of people. Miss Pettigrew is an evil, blackmailer and yet she achieves her goal of inheriting money through foul means. She has a stroke so is not able to enjoy it for long. In the end they all die, as we all do.

Lively, merry, harsh. Look on death or it will visit you. Or go away for a holiday.

David Lodge (no relation) reviewed Memento Mori recently in the Guardian. He said, ‘it is a wonderfully funny and exhilarating read’.

52 Night W

Sarah Moss Night Waking

The second novel was published in 2011 and recommended to me by my friend Marianne. As the title suggests the tensions in it come from the lack of sleep. Anna Bennett, her husband Giles and their two children are spending the summer on Colsay, a St Kilda-like island. She is suffering from lack of sleep. She also suffers from lack of time to finish her book and from lack of internet connection. Her husband counts puffins and seems unaware of her struggles.

Those who care for young children will know of their deadening demand for repetition. In this novel it is The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson’s wonderful tale of a clever mouse’s adventures. Sarah Moss manages to convey the tedium of repetition without spoiling the original.

Anna’s story becomes serious when the skeleton of a baby is discovered near their house. This leads Anna to spend time checking the history of the island, its inhabitants and absentee landowners. Her story is interwoven with letters from May, a young woman in Victorian times, who tried to bring better birthing practices to the island’s inhabitants. Eventually the two stories coincide.

By the end of the novel Anna has moved into relative freedom from her children’s sleeplessness and recommitted to her marriage. She has helped a family who have come as trial guests to the holiday home on the island and decided that her older son needs a little help with his rather bizarre fixation on death and catastrophe.

The novel is written in the first person and the humour is found in the authenticity of her chaotic life and her commentary upon it. At one point it seems as if ghosts are about to intrude. In the end all these are revealed to be functions of sleep deprivation. Nicely observed and with an interesting setting and good bit of historical research wound in.

The Guardian Review of this book can be found here.

Both were very good reads.

The next post will be the Readalong: The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen.

 

If you want to be notified of further posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box at the head of the column on the right.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews