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The Shapeless Unease Reviews

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey

The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping

Samantha Harvey

4.11 out of 5

11 reviews

Imprint: Jonathan Cape Ltd
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publication date: 9 Jan 2020
ISBN: 9781787332027

Then you think about it all the time, and the less you have the more you think about it. Original and profound, The Shapeless Unease is a startlingly insightful exploration of memory, writing and influence, death and grief, and the will to survive.

4 stars out of 5
15 Feb 2020

"littered with sharp insights expressed in exquisitely lucid prose but is as amorphous as its title suggests"

Death obsesses her. In existential crisis she takes succour from Philip Larkin’s notion of ‘the million-petalled flower/ Of being here’. The jumping around lends a disjointed quality, piecemeal as an insomniac’s memory. There is more rumination than narrative, though some emerges via an interwoven story exploring a bank robber’s anxieties, and a series of grimly funny dialogues with an unhelpful doctor. Harvey’s self-lacerating humour offsets the prevailing melancholy. ‘Any normal person can sleep; basic human function, not the work of gods,’ she writes.


5 stars out of 5
Frances Wilson
1 Feb 2020

"a merciless and self-mocking memoir in which Harvey shows us the insomniac’s universe of “edgeless expanse”."

The fact I found myself falling asleep over this book is a compliment. The thoughts that kept Harvey awake send me into a coma; my own response to high levels of anxiety is to pull down the blinds and shut up house, so I sleep like a narcoleptic through grief, rage, and panic. Writing should take us to places we wouldn’t otherwise go, and Harvey invites us to open our eyes in the darkness and feel the tiger in the room.  

4 stars out of 5
29 Jan 2020

"A vivid and disturbing memoir sheds light on our cultural anxiety about sleep"

The Shapeless Unease is cubistic, the fragments of text – conversations with her friends and her doctor, amusing early-hours ruminations about the naming of TV shows and caravans, an essay on the Pirahã tribe whose language has almost no words to depict time, a short story about a bank-robber – fit together perfectly to reveal a subject that is there all right, exposed from every angle, but also just beyond reach. It’s a book about sleep and wakefulness, but also about life and death, and the liminal spaces between them. It’s about motherhood and childlessness, love and loss, writing, rage, Brexit. It’s a dark, seductive book about fear and madness and their allure.

4 stars out of 5
Stuart Kelly
16 Jan 2020

"This is an extremely curious book, and I mean that as a sincere compliment. "

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. 

4 stars out of 5
14 Jan 2020

"a stimulating and hopeful book"

Sleeplessness is the pandemic of our generation and this book offers no universal solution. What it does offer, however, is the light at the end of a seemingly never-ending tunnel. Eventually Harvey finds not a cure but some respite in outdoor swimming and writing, the latter described as her way of shepherding the chaos of her mind. This memoir is a stimulating and hopeful book that gives us an intimate glimpse of a writer persevering through a challenging part of her life.

4 stars out of 5
14 Jan 2020

"Her reflections... have the quality of a lucid dream"

Not unlike Marina Benjamin’s elegant 2018 study, Insomnia, Harvey’s examination of her year-long insomnia is an excavation of the emotions that might cause sleeplessness. It’s a kind of philosophical detective story strewn with submerged clues. Lying awake at 3am, she circles the shrinking perimeter of her mind for answers, like “a polar bear in its grubby blue-white plastic enclosure with fake icecaps and water that turns out to have no depth”...The fragmentary style of the memoir chimes with the temporal nature of Harvey’s condition; it is an account of her slippery present life that’s suffused with the sense of a timeless fable. The writing slips in and out of the first and third person; sometimes composed from the perspective of sleeplessness as a malevolent protagonist bent on reducing her to a state of learned helplessness.

4 stars out of 5
Roger Alton
9 Jan 2020

"She's ... brilliant on words and the nature of writing"

She's also brilliant on words and the nature of writing. So, obligingly, Harvey, a well-regarded novelist, gives us a gripping little book within a book: fragments of a crime story about a likeable bloke who robs ATMs — jackpotting he calls it, a good word — to get enough cash to please his disagreeable wife who just wants to acquire stuff. He leaves his wedding ring behind, and presumably his wife as well soon enough, when she finds out. Harvey tries everything to ease her insomnia — conventional pills, herbal drugs, all the medicine chest of the insomniac. Nothing works. She starts to trash her own body. 'I break and I get up and hit things, the wall. My head, my head against the wall. I might howl. I might scream.'

4 stars out of 5
9 Jan 2020

"“My mind is a cacophony,” she says — and her memoir, vividly well written in parts, is true to that, an unholy mess. "

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. 

4 stars out of 5
Jake Kerridge
5 Jan 2020

"Harvey writes with a hefty dose of self-deprecating humour"

Occasionally one feels that this book, short as it is, might have been more effective as a long essay; the inclusion of the text of a short story she wrote as a means of getting over insomnia-induced writer’s block, and some of the more abstruse philosophical musings and vehement political invective, have a whiff of padding. But Harvey has certainly proved that insomnia, as much as any of the more obviously nasty diseases, might be as worthy a subject of literature as love, battle or jealousy, and at its best, her book rises to that level.    

4 stars out of 5
Helen Davies
5 Jan 2020

"This is a creative account of a life with little sleep"

It sounds excruciating. And beautifully, if unsettlingly, Harvey captures the roiling exhaustion, the fuggy disbelief and irrational anger of this newly uncertain state when “the world becomes profoundly unsafe” and the boundaries between the inner and outer self start to blur. She jumps in and out of memories, as personal slights that are decades old come unbidden, along with pedestrian worries for the next day. She writes a short story, recalls sunsets and muses on the concept of time.

4 stars out of 5
Catherine Taylor
20 Dec 2019

"As a writer Harvey gets at not just the heart, but the soul of things"

The title fits its subject perfectly. The grey morass of a morning after a night of no sleep whatsoever is something that is familiar to many on a temporary basis — new parents, carers, and those suffering periods of stress or sorrow. Interrupted sleep is pretty much the norm for our high-velocity 21st-century life, but the miserable bagginess of days on end faced with no respite of oblivion, however brief, is a torture Harvey describes with a combination of desperation, wry humour and — despite the scarcity she is subjected to — a deeply felt sense of life’s abundance.