And so it occurs again.
Every time I read a Jonathan Coe novel I am bowled over. And each time I reach the final page and close the book, I find myself saying 'that is his best book', only to pick another one up some way down the line and on reaching the end, conclude with 'No, that is his best book'
The last Coe novel I read earlier this year was one of his earliest offerings, A Touch Of Love (which I blogged about HERE) I polished that one off in just one day, so bewitched was I by the story, the dialogue and the sheer craftmanship evident upon the page. In that previous blog post I expressed surprise that the novel was considered one of his lesser works because I found it so good and on a par quality wise with his later works such as the delightful The Rotters Club or that book's sequel, The Closed Circle. I didn't feel that the novel, only his second, showed an author still trying to find his style, it seemed to already be there fully formed and perfect. A charity shop hunt later and I found myself another Coe, the critically applauded What A Carve Up! a book which remains still on my 'to read' pile (Why? Perhaps I'm scared of books that are so revered, preferring the pleasant surprise instead?)
A further charity shop hint recently gave me The House Of Sleep for just 50p, a book that my dear friend Jo (who has recently quite the blogosphere) recommended highly. I was immediately attracted to the premise and decided to place this further up the 'to read' pile than some of my other books, What A Carve Up! included.
I started The House Of Sleep last week. I tried to savour it, really I did, but Coe's wonderful storytelling ability and prose meant a good deal of the reading was done in just one day earlier this week. It's a truly brilliant novel detailing, in alternate chapters, the lives of a disparate group of people at University in 1984 and in their professional lives in 1996 (the book was released in '97) The majority of the characters find themselves together sharing a house as students in a town on an unspecified British coastline, but from there, the twelve years that pass and the current day events depicted continue to reverberate back to their student days and fleeting at first glance seemingly insignificant moments that occur thanks to a unique and amazing mass of consequences (and misunderstandings) that thankfully, remain satisfyingly clever and never stretch believability too much. The core of the story which these fascinating character scenarios hang off concerns itself with the issues of sleeping such as narcolepsy, catoplexy and insomnia. It is in turn a tale rich with drama, emotion and a rich seam of very English humour in keeping with Coe's vision and work. I howled with laughter at the misunderstanding that arises between one character whose dreams are preoccupied with mundane and all too believable yet so vivid to believe that what occurred within them actually happened, that she convinces herself that her new friend has just learnt that his sister has died and not, as has actually happened, his cat. His comments about how much his father despised her because she would wee on the carpet and the reaction this gets is hilarious. Ditto the reworking Coe employs of the humour within the old Two Ronnies Mastermind sketch to a set of footnotes a character fails to edit successfully will have you laughing out loud.
If there is a criticism to be levelled at the novel it's that some of the plot points seem a little hazy and rushed. There's a whole subplot concerning the suspicious demise of a student following a sleep deprivation exercise that never convincingly fits in with the rest of the story and seems to hurry its way to a conclusion on the final pages. It's a shame as the principal character this subplot concerns itself with, the sniffy self important Scot Dr Gregory Dudden is a glorious monster, at once both hilarious and unnerving. I could easily imagine a young Peter Capaldi when reading him.
It's nice to spot a recurring motif in Coe's work too; that of the next generation providing the key to a satisfying conclusion for the generation the story concerns itself with. It's something he would go on to use to greater effect in both The Rotters Club and The Closed Circle
In short, I cannot recommend this book highly enough and I look forward to another Coe novel very soon. Who knows, maybe that one will be 'his best'?