‘The impenetrable nature of sleep’ [book review]

A review of Sleepless by Anders Bortne, translated from the Norwegian by Lucy Moffatt


‘Insomnia is a public health problem suffered by every tenth adult in the Western world.’ A striking statement, but one that is entirely characteristic of Norwegian author Anders Bortne’s recent memoir Sleepless, a record of his own struggle with chronic insomnia and an exploration of this widespread but fundamentally ignored health issue. Sharp and sobering, amusing and moving, Sleepless is a brave personal chronicle that offers fascinating insights into largely unexplored territory and manages at the same time to be an absolute joy to read.

Sleepless Anders Bortne

Author, musician, cartoonist and speechwriter, married with two young children, Anders Bortne is the kind of man who on paper sounds eminently successful. He also seems to enjoy a good social life, reads widely and is interested in films and music, yet what at first glance appears to be a fulfilled life in Oslo is underpinned by an apparently incurable issue: for sixteen years, Bortne has suffered from chronic insomnia. His sleeplessness isn’t completely continuous – it comes and goes in waves, allowing him sometimes to sleep through the night, most often simply to lie awake. Each day depends on the night that precedes it and is as such entirely unpredictable. Sometimes he feels fresh and energetic, able to cope with the demands of his schedule. Other times he is exhausted and desperate, driven to rage or despair by the most trivial occurrences.

Despite having suffered for well over a decade, Bortne has never found a cure for his insomnia. Sleepless opens one April, when in desperation he once again makes a doctor’s appointment to begin the regular cycle of trying all known options: sleeping pills, herbal remedies, various forms of counselling, lifestyle alterations. As Bortne explains at the beginning of the book, he doesn’t see the need for another self-help volume offering practical but oft-repeated advice on cutting down screen time or taking warm baths. Instead, his memoir is to be a record: a deeply personal account of what it feels like to live with insomnia on a day-to-day basis, an honest take on the attempts he makes to counter it, a study of how we as societies sleep and what makes rest so important. In this he has succeeded, writing a highly memorable book that opens its readers’ eyes to an under-reported yet essential aspect of health even as it chronicles an often painful personal journey with clarity and compassion.

While we all know how it feels to be under-slept, probably few readers can appreciate just what it means to struggle with chronic insomnia. Bortne understands this completely and does an excellent job of conveying his experiences in an accessible way. While some scenes are gut-wrenching – the way his exhaustion makes him behave towards family members, or his ongoing fight to untangle the complex link between his sleep patterns and mental health – this unflinching honesty is what gives the book its heart. And despite dealing with tough days and decisions, the writing never becomes bogged down in self-pity or despondency. Lucy Moffatt’s pitch-perfect translation transports an authorial voice that is lucid, wry and perceptive, offering the added bonus of numerous glimpses into Norwegian society. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book, Moffatt’s seamless prose and Bortne’s no-nonsense attitude provide a much-needed counterpoint to some of the more serious issues being explored.

Besides providing us with a personal chronicle – from April to December, Bortne makes various attempts to battle his sleeplessness, including accessing a form of cognitive behavioural therapy regarded as the ‘gold standard’ for treating insomnia – the author speaks to numerous scientists, researchers and fellow insomniacs to build up a fascinating picture of sleep as we know it now. While it seems that ‘the impenetrable nature of sleep’ means not terribly much has been written on the subject, at least compared to other aspects of general health and wellbeing, Bortne digs up plenty of studies and literature that show how people once engaged with rest before ‘coffee, reading and the pocket watch lifted humanity out of the natural tides of sleep’, a state that became increasingly seen as idle or unproductive. While making no bones about the fact that this general development ought to be seen as alarming, not to mention the notion that ‘opting out’ of sleep may lead to more time and therefore success, Bortne’s generally firm line of enquiry remains compassionate, allowing scope for better understanding and change.

Not adverse to sometimes waxing slightly lyrical about his subject – sleep, he muses, accompanies birth and death; it is ‘where everything begins and ends’ – the author has clearly done his research with meticulous care, interweaving scientific fact with personal experience to create an approachable book on a subject that is by nature somewhat unfathomable. I was entranced by the fact that sleeping was once done in two shifts, while gentle explanations of circadian rhythm and the unwanted side effects of modern phenomena like Daylight Savings Time made me think more deeply about my own largely ignored sleep patterns. Brief it may be, but Sleepless is packed with a considerable amount of information, relayed in an engaging voice and providing much food for thought no matter which angle the reader prefers to approach from.

Bortne may not have set out to write a self-help manual, and Sleepless certainly doesn’t fall into that category, but anyone, insomniac or not, stands to gain much by reading it. ‘When we sleep, we leave no traces for the future,’ he writes – a statement that cannot be disputed. And yet, after spending time with this entertaining, enlightening book, I see that sleep – just like human activity – leaves traces long after it ends. In our increasingly frenetic world, it is what we choose to do with our hours of rest that counts.


Sleepless by Anders Bortne is translated by Lucy Moffatt and published by Sandstone Press. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.


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