Winner of the 1997 Writers' Guild Fiction Prize
Jonathan Coe was born in Birmingham in 1961. He has published seven novels, all of which are available in Penguin: The Accidental Woman, A Touch of Love, The Dwarves of Death, What a Carve Up!, which won the 1995 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, The House of Sleep, which won the 1998 Prix Medicis Etranger, The Rotter's Club, winner of the Everyman Wodehouse Prize and The Closed Circle. He has also published a biography of the novelist B.S. Johnson, which won the Orwell prize in 2005. He lives in London with his wife and two children.
Coe's first novel since his prize-winning The Winshaw Legacy (LJ 12/94) is likewise witty and intelligent. The title refers to Ashdown, a large mansion on the British coast that was converted to a dormitory by a small university and later used as a sleep research center run by an increasingly crazed doctor. The book tracks down a number of offbeat characters, including the doctor, a narcoleptic bisexual, a transsexual, and an insomniac film critic, who as students lived together in Ashdown and whose later lives are linked by a number of coincidences, many having to do with sleep pathology. An author's note warns the reader that odd-numbered chapters track down the characters in their student days in the early 1980s while even-numbered ones are set in 1996. Coe's skillful writing makes this structure an innovative means of exposition, with chapters and events flowing smoothly. The story has some surprising twists, and Coe mostly manages to avoid clichéd characters, although his mad doctor is almost over the top. Recommended for all fiction collections.‘Reba Leiding, Rensselaer Polytechnic Inst., Troy, N.Y.
A gloomy Victorian manor called Ashdown, perched on a precipice overlooking the English coastline like the anthropomorphic castle of a 19th-century gothic romance, is the setting for much of this engrossing and wildly inventive tale of demented scientists, obsessive desire, youthful idealism and anomie. As in Coe's previous book, The Winshaw Legacy, such gothic trappings serve a thoroughly contemporary story that traces the lives of several students who lived at Ashdown in the early 1980s. Then a university dormitory, it has since become a clinic for the study of sleep disorders run by the sadistic Dr. Gregory Dudden, a former student there. In chapters named in descending order after the clinical stages of sleep, the novel follows the strange coincidences of the summer of 1994 that re-acquaint Dudden with people from his past: Sarah, his narcoleptic college girlfriend, now a disillusioned schoolteacher living in London; Terry, an insomniac film critic under Dudden's supervision; and Terry's college friend Robert, whose long unrequited fixation with Sarah and confusion over his own gender led to a post-graduation vanishing act that is only explained in the very last chapter. In a series of plot twists and reversals as intricate as the electrodes that festoon the heads of the patients at Ashdown, the novel also manages to describe a university class polarized by the politics of the 1980s; the life and work of a fictitious Italian film director; an eponymous novel-within-a-novel about "midnight kidnappings" and a "notorious criminal called the Owl"; a reminiscence of the British film industry whose footnotes are hilariously askew; and an essay interpreting the events in Sarah's life from the perspective of her Lacanian psychiatrist. Balancing self-knowing references to semiotics and psychoanalysis with elegant plot symmetries, Coe proves himself as adept an architect of sparkling, highly caffeinated fictional conceits as he is a satirist of the ambiguities of identity and the afflictions of the sleep-deprived. (Mar.)