Book Review: The Shapeless Unease

I didn’t have any expectations when I opened The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping, by Samantha Harvey. I had not previously read any of her novels. I simply heard Harvey talking about the book on a podcast (available here if you’re interested) and decided that I would give it a go. The book, described by the London Review as a ‘philosophical memoir’, revolves around the author’s struggle with insomnia, which began suddenly and lasted over a year. It is about many other things – a ‘startingly insightful exploration of memory, writing and influence, death and grief, and the will to survive’, according to the book jacket – but insomnia is the central motif.

One of the best features of this memoir, in my opinion, is the way it weaves together different genres – or different types of writing – as if to suggest that insomnia isn’t straightforward, that there are many facets to sleep deprivation, and that the only way to capture them accurately is to resort to different methods. The book opens on a dialogue that feels like a script – a back and forth between Harvey and an unnamed ‘friend’, without any narration to frame it – and later, Harvey also includes sections of a short story she is writing at the time of the book. When she explores childhood memories which we can only assume are hers, she chooses to do so in the third person, and in past tense, although most of the book is in first person and in present tense. While, perhaps, the shifts might prove difficult to follow if the reader is distracted, or tired, I felt like these movements from memoir to fiction, from fiction to memoir (to fictionalised memory?) were very organic. As I read, I was inhabiting Samantha Harvey’s life, following her train of thought. Even now, flipping through the book to find quotes, passages, I am drawn in; it’s difficult to put it down.

In the opening section, the dialogue between the narrator and her friend, there is one line which, when I first read it, made me pause. It was that moment of recognition, that breath inwards. Samantha Harvey is telling her unnamed friend about her cousin’s death, which she can’t stop thinking about, and she says: ‘When I think about it, grief wells up in me so large, pure grief, as if for all the people I’m going to lose. As if his death is a doorway into all deaths.’[1] This was the line: as if his death is a doorway into all deaths. Yes, I thought when I read this line. Yes.

I read the book months after attending the funeral of one of my dad’s best friends. This friend had been a healthy, passionate woman; her death was brutal, unexpected, a fall she took when hiking alone in the mountains. She wasn’t the first person I had lost, but she was such a fixture of my life – someone we saw every year, someone we had holidayed with – and I struggled to come to grips with the reality of her absence. And then I read this line, this line which put into words exactly what I felt.

Harvey talks about this feeling in her memoir, too. While she’s awake one night, a line from a poem by Philip Larkin comes to her mind; she looks it up, and writes, ‘suddenly I don’t feel lonely, I feel elated, and everything is soft and full of echoes and resonance’[2]. Perhaps it’s not that surprising that a writer would ponder over this – the way one particular line can hone in and find you, deep in the night – or that I myself, a reader-writer, should experience a similar feeling to that described by Harvey when reading her own words. But nevertheless, there’s a kind of magic in this, the way that words sometimes make homes for us, resting places to lay our heads on. For all those times when we can’t find the words, when grief has emptied us out, the words of others are there to buoy us, sustain us.

The Shapeless Unease is a book that I know I will return to again and again. I suspect that, each time I read it, I will find yet another different section that will speak to me. It is a rich, fascinating memoir, perhaps even more so for those of us who are also writers – but I suspect that any lovers of language, or any creatives who have stayed awake at night, will also appreciate Harvey’s vivid prose.

[1] Samantha Harvey, The Shapeless Unease (London: Jonathan Cape, 2020), p. 2.

[2] Ibid, p. 56.

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