I loved Benjamin's The Middlepause, her transcendent reflection on the menopause. Now, in similar contemplative vein, she reflects on the unsettling condition that is insomnia, suffered by one in three of us. She ranges widely over history and culture, literature and art to give us an erudite, witty and personal account of what it is to be awake in the dark, only occasionally giving way to sleep-deprived irritation as the bedfellow she dubs Zzz slumbers on. Deborah Levy and Olivia Laing have already declared their bedside admiration-and I can only lay mine down next to theirs...
...it’s a collage of free-associated literary concepts and beautiful lapidary phrases, pasted together by a mind in the grip of the kind of delirium that only chronic sleeplessness can bring. One does not so much read it in a linear sense as dip in to absorb it piece by piece. Like the consciousness of the insomniac, it feels unmoored from temporal reality.
A genre of memoir currently in vogue involves entwining the author’s personal story with the cultural history of a given phenomenon, so that each may illuminate the other...This format can feel a little gimmicky, but in the case of Marina Benjamin’s Insomnia it is apt: the book’s digressive expansiveness and collage-like structure evoke the feeling of lying in bed at night with your thoughts racing...In a society increasingly enthralled by the wellness industry’s cultish charms —sustained by Big Pharma and a burgeoning canon of self-help literature, and lately bolstered by the advent of digital apps —Benjamin’s is a refreshingly grounded and sanguine voice. Her ethical stance recalls the scepticism of a previous generation of writers, such as Ken Kesey and Anthony Burgess, towards overweening psychiatric interventions. Dosing up on opioids might get you through the night, but at what cost? ‘Enchanted sleep is dreamless,’ she writes. ‘And if you can’t dream, then how can you entertain visions of a better world?
It would be a shame for Benjamin if this well-intentioned but underwhelming philosophical excursion into the night is destined only to be bought as a gift book for people who are always banging on about not being able to sleep, but that, alas, is probably its fate.On the plus side, it might well help you drop off because, like a child’s bedtime story, it contains just the right mixture of familiar territory and slightly too difficult words to put your brain in a pleasing state of foggy disassociation. And, at £9.99, it is probably cheaper than a big box of sleeping tablets.
The skittish quality leads to moments of stunning poetry, suddenly interrupted by passages of fevered introspection. “I start to question what I am about. Why am I in this house, this bed, this marriage?” she asks. “Why, when I look back over a string of formative selves, all those era-defined embodiments of me pulling in different directions, do I find myself on this path and not on any other?”...But questions are left unresolved. It feels unsatisfactory. Much like a night spent tossing and turning, in fact. You are left desperately craving resolution.
Which turns out to be the point. For at its heart this is a book about desire, and the constant dynamic tussle between hunger and satiation. What does it mean to exist on the threshold of darkness and light?