‘The House of Sleep’ by Jonathan Coe


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 341 pages; 1998.

Jonathan Coe is one of those English authors I’ve been meaning to read for years, so I was delighted when The House of Sleep, his fifth novel — and winner of the Writers’ Guild Best Fiction Award for 1997 — was recently selected for my book group.

The central story is a rather complicated one about a set of friends who meet at university, drift apart and then meet up again, by accident, some dozen years later. By some bizarre coincidence — and there are a lot of them in this novel — all of them are obsessed by sleep, hence the title.

For instance, Sarah is narcoleptic and cannot distinguish reality from her incredibly vivid dreams, which means she is prone to mistaking imagined events for real ones; Terry, a film obsessive, drinks copious amounts of caffeine so he can stay awake to watch more movies, a condition which is mistaken for insomnia; and Dr Gregory Dudden, a sleep specialist, is researching ways to eradicate sleep so that humans no longer need to do it.

Second storyline

There’s a second narrative thread in the form of Robert, who falls in love with Sarah when they are students, and the extraordinary lengths he will go to in order to win her affections.

These divergent storylines are brought together by a “huge, grey and imposing” house called Ashdown on the English coast. This is where Sarah, Robert, Terry and Gregory live as students. Fast forward 12 years and it is now a sleep clinic where Sarah and Terry are treated and where Gregory conducts his medical experiments.

The student days and the medical treatment days are told in alternate chapters — the odd-numbered chapters are set in 1983-4, while the even-numbered are set in the last two weeks of June, 1996.

Hilarious and menacing

The House of Sleep is, by turn, darkly comic — in fact, I’d rate this as one of the funniest books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading — and strangely sinister. It is part campus novel and part medical novel. In many ways it probably shouldn’t work — and, indeed, without all the uncanny coincidences that occur to the characters it probably wouldn’t.

But it’s so hugely entertaining — laugh out loud funny one minute, quite sad and sobering the next — you can forgive it’s ever-so-slight failings.

While there are some set pieces shoehorned in purely for their wit factor — the feature article “ghosted” by Terry that results in 12 libel suits and the closure of the magazine in which it was published is particularly hilarious, but the book would be no less of an achievement without it — I appreciated the way in which they broke up the narrative and provided a bit of light relief.

And there does need to be some relief, because while there are moments which are truly shocking — Gregory’s penchant for poking Sarah’s eyes out during sex, for instance, and the drastic no-going-back way in which Robert changes himself in order to appeal to Sarah — the reader is left feeling quietly devastated by the time the last page is reached.

The House of Sleep is a very good novel peopled with three-dimensional characters, punchy dialogue and a well crafted plot. It’s stylish, funny and edgy, and has made me more determined to read more of Jonathan Coe’s work — which is nine novels at last count.

15 thoughts on “‘The House of Sleep’ by Jonathan Coe

  1. I love Jonathan Coe’s books. I read this one back when it was first published and didn’t enjoy it as much as the others at the time – however I have been meaning to re-read it for ages, so I’m glad you enjoyed it – I hope I will second time around.


  2. For some reason I always pigeon-holed him with Tony Parsons, so haven’t really bothered to read him before. But was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this one. Good to hear his other stuff is recommended. A few people on Twitter have told me to try “What A Carve Up!” — have you read that one?


  3. I’ve read four Coes (but not this one or his latest, which I do have on hand). The Rain Before It Falls disappointed the other three (especially The Rotter’s Club and The Closed Circle) were excellent, slight better than What A Carve Up. I’d say you would be happy with any of the three (note, however, that the first two I mentioned feature the same characters but are set some years apart — they are best read in order). Coe has a sourish humor to him that I quite appreciate — and is quite good at poking holes in some modern British puffery.
    All of which is meant to say that your review indicates this one fits with the three I have liked and I should try to get to it eventually.


  4. Ah, I should have known you’d be a Coe fan… I vaguely recall watching the BBC TV adaptation of The Rotter’s Club and being tickled by the fact the characters worked for the same magazine company I worked for — and there were even references to the (not to be revealed) horsey magazine I spent 3 years working for!
    I think you’d like this one, because if I’m not mistaken you like campus novels and while The House of Sleep is not strictly a campus novel it’s close enough — the characters are all university students living in the same communal accommodation.


  5. Funny is good; everyone likes funny.
    I’ve heard his name before (always very good things said) but I can’t place the context right now. I’m willing to check it out. The idea of this novel feels familiar for reasons I can’t put a finger on.


  6. I’m glad you discovered that Coe is not like Parsons (of whom 1 book was enough for me). I loved ‘What a carve up’ and ‘The Rotters Club’ was brilliant (as a teen of the 1970s I really identified with it). His debut, ‘The Dwarves of Death’ was weirder but fun. I really liked ‘The Rain before it falls’ – quite different and no comedy. Must re-read this one though…


  7. I seem to have read quite a lot of humourous novels over the past year or two; they were always books I tended to avoid because I feared I wouldn’t find them funny. Humour is such a subjective thing, I think.


  8. Thanks for your comment, lewerentz. It seems everyone who reads this novel loves it. Given that Annabel says The Rain Before was a bit different to his usual stuff, perhaps that’s why you found it disappointing… ?


  9. I have read Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, my first Coe. As you rightly said he makes you laugh one minute and sad the next, and it is a gift that few authors has. I’m going to read his other books as well. Did you say 9? hmmmm.. I’ll take one at a time and see where it leads. Happy Holidays Kim. 😉


  10. I remember getting a review copy of Maxwell Sim but I think I must have culled it somewhere along the line… as I said to Annabel (above) I had pigeonholed him in with Tony Parsons, who does not appeal at all, and so I figured the book wasn’t right for me. I’m now beginning to think I might have been wrong!


  11. This line: “the drastic no-going-back way in which Robert changes himself in order to appeal to Sarah ” is one of the worst spoilers I’ve read in ages now. Bought the book based on your review and from early on it’s quite obvious what everything is leading to from that one line.
    Movies and book reviews…. you’re darned if you do and darned if you don’t.
    I’ve just read the libel bit. And found it so obviously contrived (as perfect in construction as the Two Ronnies Mastermind sketch), and the results so utterly unbelievable, that it detracts from any authenticity that the rest of the book might have. Shoehorned indeed.
    Though, personally I was finding the megalomaniac sleep doctor, and the snobby film critic to be terrible cliched and 2 dimensional characters…. maybe I should be reading the whole thing in that light…as a flippant comedy?
    Sorry for all the early morning negativity. Otherwise, finding it entertaining enough 🙂


  12. You thought that was a spoiler? And here I was thinking I was being all coy and mysterious… Sorry about that. I try not to post spoilers, but sometimes it’s very difficult to talk about a novel without giving some hints away.
    And yes, having read this for a book group and having talked it to death with six others, I think the only way you can appreciate the novel is not to take it too seriously. The libel bit is one of the funniest things I’ve read in fiction, but you’re right, it’s by no way believable. In fact, not much in the entire book is believable, but sometimes it’s nice to read something a bit hyper-surreal, no?
    Anyway, glad you’re finding it entertaining. I expect you’ll come back and leave another comment if it falls spectacularly short. 🙂


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