The Shapeless Unease
A bad night of sleep can lead to a bad morning.
A bad year of sleep can unstitch your whole life.
Insomnia can be a sinister bedfellow. It can creep insidiously into everything. It can erode and corrode your everyday being, turning every colour, every sound, every smell, into something monotonous, into a greyish hue.
This is what happened to Samantha Harvey, in the sleepless year after her cousin’s death. Her nights became unbearable. Her days became torturous. She found it increasingly difficult to deal with the world.
However, that year was far from unproductive. During her insomnia, Samantha Harvey wrote down all her thoughts, giving shape to this memoir, The Shapeless Unease (2020). It is a remarkably lucid piece of writing. For something as disorderly and disorientating as insomnia, Harvey’s prose memoir is extremely coherent. It turns all her night terrors into something cogent, something quixotic, something engaging, somewhere on the borders between waking and sleep.
The Shapeless Unease is a memoir about sleep, but it is a book about so much else.
In searching for the solution, the root cause of her insomnia, Harvey delves deep into her darkest self, dredging up all the questions which prey upon her mind, like descending among concentric pits of doubt.
She asks herself repeatedly, what does it mean to die? Her cousin’s death coincided with her sleeplessness. So was it his death which ended her good sleep? Ultimately, she thinks, there must be some more to it.
And so she moves down, deeper into the pits. If all death is inevitable, then what does it actually mean, to be here right now, to exist here and now? Is there any point to existence at all? Or are we all just moments, caught in snatches of time?
The pits turn existential. Her self-searching goes deeper. She looks for something higher, some absolute system, be it science, religion, poetry, or her writing, to give her an answer, to give her a reason. She feels if she can fall into this higher system, into the cushioned comfort of an absolute truth, then maybe she can fall into the arms of Morpheus, can trust herself unflinchingly to the warm arms of sleep.
Whether she finds the answers to these questions is unclear. This book is elliptical. It moves towards a truth, in towards its centre, and then moves back out. It is in the process of this gradual searching, this inward movement, then its movement out, that the book finds it impetus and thrust.
“Since when was sleep a matter of faith?”
The Shapeless Unease has a striking cover. Two florid, dreamy tigers stalk the back, spine and front, walking among a fathomless black background, incongruous against a deep and profound dark. What is the meaning of these abnormal tigers? As the book develops, the reader understands that these unnerving tigers represent Harvey’s insomnia, the amassing of fear that stalks around her brain, triggering in her memory a fight-and-flight response, like a sinister tiger stalking her neural pathways.
“There is a tiger in your bedroom, you ought to be afraid.”
However, these strange and otherworldly tigers tap into another aspect of living with insomnia. Namely, how unreal it renders the whole world.
Insomnia can trigger a divorce from reality. It untethers you from the moorings of the world. Like a sleepless Icarus, you are flying near the sun. There is the constant risk that your wings will get burnt. But there is the benefit of an acquired clarity. You are able to look directly in the sun, to stare into the centre of the origins of everything, at the atoms and molecules where we once all came from. In that sense, your perceptions of the world become clearer, and it is that raw, unfiltered sort of energy which Harvey injects in the prose of her book. She stamps all of her words with a vivid directness, an intense energy sparking out from the page.
In that sense, her insomnia was a double-edged process, both a divorce from reality, and then a way back in, albeit back in through a hidden side door. It was a circuitous journey towards a self-truth. For readers, it resulted in a compelling memoir. For her, we only hope, it resulted in sleep.
“Tyger Tyger, burning bright/ In the forests of the night/ What immortal hand or eye/ Could make Samantha Harvey sleep?”