I read a lot of good books for work. Even great books. Just occasionally something truly special comes alone. Sleep by Catherine Cole is one such book.
In a small London café, teenager 17-year-old Ruth, and elderly French artist, Harry, recognise something profound in each other. They strike up a conversation that leads to regular meetings. A friendship is born. There are complications that come with this friendship, however this beautiful book is somewhat of a relief. It really is about human connection and a friendship that takes Ruth and Harry on a journey through their memories of traumatic times.
Harry has much to tell about his childhood beside the Canal St Martin in Paris. Ruth has stories about her mother Monica’s childhood in the Yorkshire Dales and London, and her traumatic death. How much has the stain of tragedy charged these memories and what use can be made of the pain?
In present day London, Ruth is preparing to take Harry to Paris. She reflects deeply on life, her relationship and particularly her mother. Monica’s life and death shaped Ruth, and we learn much about this fascinating, long-departed character.
Looking back on her years with Harry, Ruth sees how shared memories – ecstatic or painful – can reshape the ways we value our lives and the lives of others. Much of their relationship is told through flashbacks, reflections on the stories Harry has shared with Ruth. Early on in their friendship he makes her commit a Schopenhauer quote to paper:
“The memory should be specially taxed in youth, since it is then that it is strongest and most tenacious. But in choosing the things that should be committed to memory the utmost care and forethought must be exercised; as lessons well learnt in youth are never forgotten.” In many ways, Ruth commits Harry’s stories to memory for him.
Sleep is filled with fascinating characters, such as Ruth’s great aunt Elsie, but many don’t themselves appear on the page but rather in Ruth’s reflections of the past. Such as Ruth’s vibrant sister Antoinette who moves to Australia, joining her Aunt Monica, who sends postcards from her new and faraway home. Harry tells Ruth that Australia seems sleepy to him. And as the book’s title suggests, sleep is a theme weaved throughout, as a method of healing, an escape. Ruth’s mother Monica slept a lot before her death.
Sleep is exquisitely written, with short chapters weaving compelling memories, tales and often profound lessons together into one sublime read. The locations are richly drawn, from the cafés and galleries where Ruth and Harry meet, to his childhood streets, and the oppressive walls and floor of Ruth’s childhood bathroom. There are complex, dark themes explored in Sleep and yet the simplicity in which they’re told made this read feel much lighter than it was. Perhaps it’s the simple beauty of Sleep that outshines the trauma it addresses. I loved it… I truly loved it. An astounding achievement.
About the author:
Catherine Cole is a writer and academic who has published novels, memoir, poetry and short fiction as well as critical and nonfiction work. Her work has been published in Australia and internationally and broadcast on BBC Radio. She has been awarded writers residencies in France, China, Vietnam and Australia and has mentored or supervised the writing of some of Australia’s leading writers. She currently divides her time between Australia, UK and France.