Insomnia by Marina Benjamin

Review published on October 18, 2018.

Marina Benjamin’s Insomnia, published by Scribe in November 2018, is described as an ‘intense, lyrical, witty, and humane exploration of a state we too often consider only superficially.’ In her memoir, Benjamin has ‘produced an unsettling account of an unsettling condition that treats our inability to sleep not as a disorder, but as an existential experience that can electrify our understanding of ourselves, and of creativity and love.’

Its blurb points to the way in which Insomnia crosses genre boundaries: ‘At once philosophical and poetical, the book ranges widely over history and culture, literature and art, exploring a threshold experience that is intimately involved with trespass and contamination: the illicit importing of day into night.’ Lauded in several reviews on the book’s inside cover are the strength and beauty of Benjamin’s writing. Olivia Laing compares it to Anne Carson’s, and says of the book: ‘Every insomniac knows how sleeplessness warps and deforms reality. Marina Benjamin anatomises its endless nights and red-eyed mornings, finding a sublime language for this strange state of lack.’ Francis Spufford calls Benjamin ‘the Scheherazade of sleeplessness, spinning tale upon tale, insight upon insight, in frayed and astonishing and finally ecstatic leaps.’

Benjamin’s prose is raw and honest, and there is an impressive amount of polish given to the whole. Insomnia has been pieced together using a fragmentary style. Some of Benjamin’s entries span a long paragraph; others consist of a single sentence.  Each entry provides a rumination which is, in some way, related to sleeplessness. The central thread which runs through the whole connects each of the fragments together, and it feels almost as though it comes full-circle.

Benjamin’s writing is both sensual and provocative. At the beginning of Insomnia, whilst she is describing her own experiences with the inability to sleep, she talks of the voluptuous quality of being awake whilst everyone around her is sleeping. She writes: ‘When I am up at night the world takes on a different hue. It is quieter and closer and there are textures of the dark I have begun paying attention to.  I register the thickening, sense-dulling darkness that hangs velvety as a pall over deep night, and the green-black tincture you get when moisture charges the atmosphere with static.’ She goes on to describe one of the main effects which insomnia has upon her: ‘At the velvet end of my insomniac life I am a heavy-footed ghost, moving from one room to another, weary, leaden – there, but also not there.’

Benjamin is always aware of herself in time. She is candid about her experiences with sleeplessness, and is able to give weight and importance to the very early morning, which many of us miss. ‘These days,’ she tells us, ‘my prime time is 4.15 a.m., a betwixt and between time, neither day nor night. At 4.15 a.m., birds chirrup, foxes scream, and sometimes, when the rotating schedule for landing and take-off from Heathrow Airport collides with my sleeplessness, planes rumble overhead.’ She gives thought, too, to the spaces we share when we sleep: ‘To share a bed with someone is to entertain a conversation played out in the language of movement and space.’

Benjamin’s ideas feel rather profound at times. She asks, for instance, ‘If we insist on defining something in terms of what it annuls then how can we grasp the essence of what is lost when it shows itself? And how can we tell if there is anything to be gained by its presence? This is the trouble with insomnia.’

In Insomnia, she probes what insomnia really means, and traces such things as the word’s origins, and its interpretations throughout history. She examines different ‘cures’ given to those suffering with insomnia, and draws connections between women sufferers, thought to be mad, being sent to live in asylums. Benjamin moves fluidly between such subjects as religion, mindfulness, nightmares, and ancient folktales, to alchemy, psychology, and representations of the night.

Of the collective experience of insomnia, which she points out is little discussed, she writes: ‘Like travel, insomnia is an uprooting experience. You are torn out of sleep like a plant from its native soil, then shaken down so that any clinging vestige of slumber falls away, naked confusion exposed like nerve endings. Sleep, in its turn, is a matter of gravity. It pulls you down, beds you in the earth,  burrows you in.  In sleep you connect back to the bedrock that provides nourishment and restorative rest.’

Benjamin’s book is rich and layered. Despite covering only 122 pages, she has managed to create a measured and well-structured approach to a condition which needs more attention drawn toward it. Her ruminations are always of interest, and feel rather thought-provoking, particularly when they draw together feelings which those of us who are not insomniacs are so aware of, and can connect with: ‘Insomnia makes an island of you. It is, bottom line, a condition of profound loneliness. And not even a dignified loneliness, because in insomnia you are cannibalised by your own gnawing thoughts.’

I have never, thankfully, suffered with insomnia, but Benjamin’s memoir has given me a real insight into what the experience involves. I had never before thought that losing sleep would have any positive qualities, but Benjamin’s musings have made me reconsider this. I found Insomnia surprisingly moving at times.

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin
Scribe UK 9781911344926 pbk Nov 2018

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