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  • Published: 9 January 2020
  • ISBN: 9781473572713
  • Imprint: Vintage Digital
  • Format: EBook
  • Pages: 192

The Shapeless Unease

A Year of Not Sleeping

A poignant, urgent memoir about insomnia; the non-fiction debut by one of our finest novelists

In this astonishingly powerful memoir about insomnia, acclaimed novelist Samantha Harvey explores everything that is keeping her – and the nation – awake at night

‘Insomnia has turned me into a haggler. I’m always looking for the next thing I can trade with it or the next thing I can get from it, or the next bit of leverage I can use to cut a deal. . .’

For months Samantha Harvey has been enduring many sleepless nights in a row, grieving for her late cousin, angry about Brexit, worrying about getting older, caught up in problems from her past, desperate to stop thinking. . . Finding herself unable to write fiction, she decided to write about her affliction instead. The result is perhaps her most urgent and inventive work to date.

The Shapeless Unease is a beautiful, shape-shifting book, moving seamlessly from quasi-surreal scenes in which Harvey describes the sensation of being awake for nights and days on end, to painful appointments with a GP who is running low on time, resources and sympathy, to thoughtful enquiries into the roots of her insomnia. It is a vivid, unsettling reflection of the things we all lose sleep over.

  • Published: 9 January 2020
  • ISBN: 9781473572713
  • Imprint: Vintage Digital
  • Format: EBook
  • Pages: 192

About the author

Samantha Harvey

Samantha Harvey is the author of The Wilderness, All Is Song, Dear Thief and The Western Wind. She appeared on the longlists for the Bailey’s Prize and the Man Booker, and the shortlists of the James Tait Black Award, the Orange Prize, the Guardian First Book Award and the Walter Scott Prize. The Wilderness won the Betty Trask Award in 2009. She is a tutor on the MA course in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.

Also by Samantha Harvey

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Praise for The Shapeless Unease

[A] remarkable book… [The Shapeless Unease is] an extraordinary journey, but it’s also mesmerising. Harvey writes with hypnotic power and poetic precision about – well, about everything: grief, pain, memory, family, the night sky, a lake at sunset, what it means to dream and what it means to suffer and survive.

Christina Patterson, Mail on Sunday

A delight to read… suffused with the sense of a timeless fable… ineffably rewarding.

Colin Grant, Observer

Urgent and wild, but also dazzling in its precision. This is what it must be like to try to keep hold of a brilliant mind that is threatening to unspool… a dark, seductive book about fear and madness and their allure… Reading The Shapeless Unease can feel not unlike dipping into strange, unchartered waters: it is by turns bracing and soothing, with a dark undertow and glimmers of light at the surface, and one emerges from it with an altered perspective, a sense of time having slowed down.

Sophie McBain, New Statesman

Samantha Harvey's dazzling, dizzying trip through the nightmare world of the sleepless...[is a] wondrous little book... a treasure trove of material… The Shapeless Unease is also one of the best books you will find about swimming. And its wonders.

Roger Alton, Daily Mail

Intricately intriguingastonishing… [The Shapeless Unease is] a particular joy. It moves between topics with ease, and yet at its heart it is an emotional book… I haven’t read a book which is quite as clear about being a writer.

Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday

The Shapeless Unease is a merciless and self-mocking memoir in which Harvey shows us the insomniac’s universe of “edgeless expanse”… Writing should take us to places we wouldn’t otherwise go, and Harvey invites us to open our eyes in the darkness and feel the tiger in the room.

Frances Wilson, Daily Telegraph

The Shapeless Unease contains many beautiful and poignant passages about the human will to keep on living… [and] Harvey’s imagery casts a spell.

Johanna Thomas-Corr, The Times

What a spectacularly good book. It is so controlled and yet so WILD. One of the best books I’ve read about writing. One of the best books I’ve read about swimming. One of the best books I’ve read about mourning. And easily one of the truest and best books I’ve read about what it’s like to be alive now, in this country.

Max Porter

How can a book about a sensual deprivation be so sensuous and so full? Gritty with particulars, concrete and substantial even when it is most philosophical and far-reaching. I loved reading it before I fell asleep every night – it seemed to give my sleep resonance and poetry. What a beautiful book.

Tessa Hadley

The Shapeless Unease captures the essence of fractious emotions – anxiety, fear, grief, rage – in prose so elegant, so luminous, it practically shines from the page. Harvey is a hugely talented writer, and this is a book to relish.

Sarah Waters

This book felt enormous to me, mercurial, devastating, seeming to grapple with the nature of everything in a manner so compelling it is impossible not to be swept along. A book to return to again and again.

Daisy Johnson

A small miracle of a book. Reading it feels like its own kind of lucid dream … You would imagine a book written in such circumstances would have a hazy quality, but in fact its clarity of expression is startling. It's a fireworks display. It's also a profound meditation on language and loss and time, and on how we construct ourselves through stories. And it's painful. And it's beautiful. And I love it. Samantha Harvey is the most exceptionally gifted of authors, and here she demonstrates that she can literally do anything.

Nathan Filer

I am still shuddering, almost, from the beautiful, beautiful writing and its broken, angry, vibrant demand – a dare almost – to accept life, and brave it, with all it brings.

Cynan Jones

A creative account of a life with little sleep… Readers looking for their own cure will instead find an erudite companion to help them through the dark times.

Helen Davies, Sunday Times

It's funny, sad, wry, always worrying away at the mystery of sleep and its absence and finding endless new angles so that the whole has something of the quality of those waking dreams that haunt the insomniac and are her private country.

Andrew Miller

A slim, intense memoir about her own year-long experience of nocturnal unrest… a torture Harvey describes with a combination of desperation, wry humour and — despite the scarcity she is subjected to — a deeply felt sense of life’s abundance… [her] proseglows off the page: an exacting inquisition of the self leading to imperfect peace.

Catherine Taylor, Financial Times

[A] bravely exposing deep dive into the emotional murk of her [Havey’s] restless mind….[it] reveals…the irresistible writerly impulse to pin experience to the page.

Anthony Cummins

[Harvey is] brilliant on words and the nature of writing.

Roger Alton, Daily Express

[With The Shapeless Unease] Harvey has certainly proved that insomnia, as much as any of the more obviously nasty diseases, might be as worthy a subject of literature as love, battle or jealousy…her book rises to that level.

Jake Kerridge, Sunday Telegraph

[A] bravely exposing deep dive into the emotional murk of her [Havey’s] restless mind….[it] reveals…the irresistible writerly impulse to pin experience to the page.

Anthony Cummins

[The Shapeless Unease] reads like a dream sequence… Even reading this made me feel dizzy… [Harvey is] a vigorous, eloquent writer… she conveys the way sleeplessness takes you into the death zone of life.

Ysenda Maxtone Graham, Tablet

Urgent and full of arresting images and insights.

Stephanie Cross, Lady

Mesmerising…at times, bitingly funny… [The Shapeless Unease is] an engrossing portrait of the fragility of identity and coherency in the grip of insomnia. I hadn’t read Harvey before this, but her facility with language here captivated me and I’ll be seeking out her novels next.

Valerie O’Riordan, Bookmunch

[The Shapeless Unease] is littered with sharp insights expressed in exquisitely lucid prose but is as amorphous as its title suggests.

Keiron Pim, Spectator

It’s a claustrophobic, enlightening, moving, existential treatise on sleep, insomnia and death. And it’s funny, too.

Sadie Jones, Guardian

A beautiful, jagged little book about insomnia and so many unknowable things: life and death, Buddhism, and how language alters our thinking. But I was most struck by its form and structure.

Fatima Bhutto, New Statesman

I wish I had saved The Shapeless Unease to read in isolation but Samantha Harvey’s book about insomnia, time, death and so many unknowable things is a blessing to have in lonely times. It is a profound and stunning book but funny, too.

Fatima Bhutto, Evening Standard

[Samantha Harvey's] cerebral, startlingly clear account of somehow pulling through [from insomnia] carries an electric charge and meditates on not only the mystery of sleep but also writing, swimming and dreams.


A profound and stunning book but funny, too.

Amrou Al-Kadki, Evening Standard

[The Shapeless Unease] is beautifully crafted and its achievement makes itself more apparent on a second reading.

Richard Gwyn, Wales Art Review

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