Book review: The Shapeless Unease, by Samantha Harvey

This is an extremely curious book, and I mean that as a sincere compliment. The spine of it is writing around Samantha Harvey’s experience of insomnia; but it becomes far more than a moan about sleeplessness. Her efforts to understand what is happening (or more precisely not happening) spiral out in manifold ways.
Samantha Harvey PIC: Pako Mera/ShutterstockSamantha Harvey PIC: Pako Mera/Shutterstock
Samantha Harvey PIC: Pako Mera/Shutterstock

Parts of The Shapeless Unease involve trying to find a cause, which means some autobiographical material involving her parents’ divorce, the death of a dog, and an assault in Australia. Parts of it involve her workaday world as a novelist and how writing, dreaming and sleeping might be interconnected. Parts involve philosophical intermissions on time, space, tense identity, anxieties about femininity and the menopause, terror, Brexit, grief. As she writes towards the end of the book, “My self is a self understood through fragments. My self is a scattered thing”. On the same page, “‘No’, the only word the brain seems to remember.” Add into that religion, science and medicine and you can see why I found it intricately intriguing.

It is part of the new trend in non-fiction, a kind of jumble-up but carefully patterned. It doesn’t sit easily in one genre, but tiptoes around many different styles. Especially in this book there is a kind of nod to the OuLiPo movement. Harvey recounts an idea for a story – about a man who successfully managed to rob a cash machine but lost his wedding ring in the process. As she interrogates the idea, we get multiple iterations of how the story might work, from a very basic “this then that” to more and more fleshed out versions where the characters become clarified. It is a cleverly strange device and is almost dreamlike; the story keeps repeating but keeps changing, like Raymond Queneau’s Exercises In Style. There are also significant repetitions – one cadenza about trying to sleep begins with a litany of “yes” and “eyes” ending “Close you’re yes”, “Close you are, yes”, “Yes.”, “Yes?” It reads like a form of prose poetry, but in its endless circling perfectly captures the idea of insomnia.
(A confession: I don’t have insomnia but do have irregular sleep. I learned that waking, as I do, in the middle of the night was the customary practice in the Middle Ages, which is why monks celebrate Matins at the watches. Getting up and working seems to do the trick.)

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The book begins with Harvey’s cousin’s death, and throughout (although she does reference Shakespeare a lot towards the end) the unuttered quote is clear. “To die, to sleep; / To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come.” She is markedly un-metaphysical. Death is death, end of. At the same time she is humble, neither accepting the purely materialistic view of the world, or dismissing the religious viewpoint. There is something very gracious about someone who can say, honestly, “I just don’t know”; the way in which science – such as how far away the sun is – and religion – including a letter from an American pastor about her fiction – are paralleled and left in suspension.

One of the book’s most astonishing sections involves the language of the Pirahã. Did I say it was a compendious volume for such a slender book? Apparently the Pirahã have no past or future tenses in their language. There is a word, xibipiio, which they use for “going in and out an experience”. That as well seems like a metaphor for sleep, when we succumb to timelessness. “Time leaks everywhere into English,” Harvey writes, but only after the crucial and beautiful sentence “I can rest my entire life on the cranky hinge of the word ‘if’.”

The opening page of the book has a fine confession, a conversation between the author and a friend. “What are you writing?”, “Not sure, some essays. Not really essays. Not essays at all. Some things.” “About what?” “Not sure. This and that. About not sleeping, mainly.

But death keeps creeping in.” The this-and-that-ness of this book is what makes it a particular joy. It moves between topics with ease, and yet at its heart it is an emotional book, in which loss of sleep and loss of family are the poles.

I haven’t read a book which is quite as clear about being a writer. She writes about “…this displaced feeling I always gets when a reader writes to me about my books. How can it be that I, here, dreamt up a world from some place in myself I can’t quite name, and a person, there, has taken that world into a place in them that they can’t quite name… the echo passes back and forth.”

If all this makes the book sound rather serious, I ought to mention that she has a riff on the phrase “Great British” which is both hilarious and horrific at one and the same time. No wonder she might worry about worrying. Stuart Kelly

The Shapeless Unease, by Samantha Harvey, Jonathan Cape, £12.99

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