"Huge, grey and imposing": the three adjectives appear two-thirds of the way down the opening page of Jonathan Coe's fifth novel, introducing the story's main setting, a house shared by a group of university students, in some indeterminate location on the English coast. Twenty-three pages later, those same words reappear, introducing an identical description of the same house, now the house of sleep of the title, a private clinic treating patients suffering from various sleep-disorders. The narrative has now moved forward some twelve years, the original student inhabitants have moved on - although most of them, in various guises, will be back... From there on the novel, in alternating chapters, moves backwards and forwards between undergraduate days in the eighties and "post-undergraduate" days - in many respects post-innocence days - in the mid-nineties.
There is equally something huge and imposing about the novel itself, which I have just reread in the space of an afternoon. Its atmosphere is from the start uncomfortably sinister; whereas other reviewers have tended to insist on the comic elements of the story, it should also be pointed out that the characters are, each in his or her own private way, both unhappy and unstable. And the novel's undoubted strength lies in the way it draws the reader inside these different versions of unhappiness and instability, forcing him or her to question the very nature of identity, and also to ask to what extent we can - or should - attempt to change it.
The novel is also grey - though not in any conventionally negative way. Dealing not only with the nature of dreams, the narrative also examines those awkward, Proustian grey areas between the conscious and unconscious minds. In the case of one character, Sarah, whose dreams are so vivid that she can no longer reliably distinguish between the things she has said and done and those she has only dreamt about, the nature of reality itself is tantalisingly questioned.
And yet Jonathan Coe's novel is not one of those postmodernist works like Auster's "New York Trilogy" in which the narratological pyrotechnics are such that the actual story-line - assuming there is one - becomes an irrelevant detail. Coe's non-linear complexity is complexity in the best tradition of "Wuthering Heights". And I defy any sensitive reader not to sprout a few goose-pimples when he reaches the overwhelmingly moving conclusion to what is, again like "Wuthering Heights", one of the most hauntingly unconventional of love-stories.