A strikingly insightful vision of life
Maya is an insomniac whom nothing and nobody can help. She wanders the city at night envying those who can take a good night’s rest for granted. When her boyfriend walks out on her, she meets the equally insomniac, much older Benoit, and they feel an immediate mutual sympathy. She reminds him of his mother, with whom he had a deep but ambiguous bond – unknown to him she was a prostitute which made him a vulnerable outsider even in his childhood. Maya recognises in him a fellow-sufferer, and he helps to make her existence a little more bearable.
Thanks to their clumsy expressions of despair, Maya ends up in hospital and Benoit in a psychiatric institution where they each encounter other unfortunate loners. Back outside again, the bewildered couple is wafted back into each other’s vicinity, two outcasts tending each other’s wounds. Verbeke relates Maya’s story with Benoit’s, alternating their own interpretation and version of events, chapter by chapter. This device allows Verbeke to bring their backgrounds fully to the fore as well as the dramatic confrontation of both their lives.
Annelies Verbeke writes about people one cannot help but feel sympathy for, so poignant is their yearning for a normal life. At the same time they realise that, with their expectations and longings, the superficial outside world will not satisfy them. Annelies Verbeke uses powerful, well-chosen metaphors to underpin her story and she is penetrating in rendering her characters’ loneliness, impotence and feelings of insignificance. Most surprising of all is the tone of the book: simultaneously laconic, spare and poetic, with a dash of irony, and nevertheless brimming with genuine sympathy. Sleep! is a convincing novel in which the author uses the complex personalities of her characters to pen a strikingly insightful vision of life and its experiences.