Insomnia captures the fractured experience of insomnia itself. It swerves between lyrical prose about the sensory experience of insomnia, anecdotes about its everyday (night) consequences, and reflections on sleep and its lack as they appear in art, philosophy and science.
There’s a beautiful section at the beginning describing the different shades of darkness as Benjamin moves wakefully through a sleeping house. There’s a weary accounting of all the remedies she has tried to no avail and a humorous glimpse into the trials of cognitive-behavioural therapy. There’s a discussion on beds and bedrooms through the ages including the nocturnal conversations and books and even haircuts which Pepys describes undertaking in his.
Like the wakeful mind in the early hours, she roves between these subjects, each assuming its own importance, just as, before dawn, fear of the coming climate apocalypse and the cutting remark of a colleague in the staff kitchenette can assume an equal, terrible weight.
As a long-time insomniac, many things here resonated with me – the odd reversal where you feel alert at night but barely able to function by day, a ghost in your own life. The endless running monologue in your head. Despite it all, an odd ambivalence – a sense that those wakeful nights are free of constraint and that without them something might be lost.
Benjamin quotes a line from the medieval Islamic poet Rumi: ‘every human being streams at night into the loving nowhere’. Is it that ‘nowhere’ that our mind fears? Is that the reason behind its insistent chatter?
If you’re an insomniac, you will find much here that you recognise and perhaps some reassurance that you are not alone. If you are not, it will offer some insight into the frazzled mind of any bleary-eyed ghosts in your life.
Enjoyed this? Take a look at my review of Nine Pints by Rose George