10.10.2013

The Sleep Room, by F.R. Tallis

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher.

The Sleep Room
In the fourth century BCE, a Chinese philosopher wrote down an idea that became a motif that's recurred through philosophy and literature ever since. Zhuang Zhou wrote that he once dreamt he was a butterfly. When he woke, he couldn't be sure if he'd been a man dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly now dreaming that it was a man. It's a lot more poetic than René Descartes' cogito ergo sum. The reason I bring this up is because with psychological thrillers, the senses can't be trusted. Sometimes, even logic can't be trusted. As a reader, you have to go back to first principles and question everything else that happens. I also bring up these philosophical nuggets because a minor character in F.R. Tallis' The Sleep Room does so. When you get to the final twist in this book (after several more twists), you have to build your impression of this book all over again.

Dr. James Richardson, at the beginning of The Sleep Room, has just successfully interviewed for a position at Dr. Hugh Maitland's mental hospital. Wyldehope has a strange reputation. Richardson's predecessor resigned, giving the reason that he couldn't take the isolation. When Richardson arrives, odd things start to happen. Wedding rings go missing. Patients complain that their beds are moved around at night. Richardson himself feels ominous presences. But the strangest thing of all is Dr. Maitland's deep sleep study. Six women are kept under sedation and given electroconvulsive therapy. They are roused periodically to eat and use the restroom, but otherwise they sleep. By the time Richardson meets them, they've been asleep for more than a month. By the way, this book is set in the mid-1950s, when you could do things like that without having an ethics committee shutting you down or civil rights groups advocating for the patients. All of the women have been diagnosed with schizophrenia or something similar. Maitland's idea is that through prolonged sleep and ECT, their personalities and/or brain chemistry will "reset."

Then, the women appear to start dreaming in sync with each other.

Meanwhile, Richardson starts a heated relationship with one of the nurses, Jane Turner. He does his best to settle into his new role and new life. He mostly agrees with his superior's theories about using medication instead of talk therapy. He does experiment a bit with talk therapy in the case of Michael Graham, a former Cambridge man who suffered a breakdown. Graham is the one who ponders, to the point of insanity, about Zhuang Zhou's philosophy. Being a fan of the history of psychology, I enjoyed the perspective on mid-century psychology, when many thought that mental illness could be medicated into submission or surgically excised. It's horrifying, too, given how much we've learned since that time about how the mind and brain function.

When Richardson notices that something strange is going on with the sleep study, he points it out to Maitland. He has deep misgivings when the women stop waking up. Tallis ratchets up the paranoid tension before dropping not one, but two, major twists. I can't even hint at them without ruining this fascinating tale. In fact, I pondered how I would classify this book's genre. Tagging it as horror would put future readers into one mindset. Calling it a thriller, as I ended up doing, would suggest other expectations. Being a librarian, I had to go for accuracy over potential spoilers (mostly because I know catalogers who would find me and kill me if I didn't).

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