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Karen Russel - Sleep Donation

Sleep Donation - Karen Russell

This short novella about a world in which sleep is rare and people are dying from being awake and not getting the recreational rest of a good night's sleep and dream could have easily been read in one sitting. It is only about one hundred pages long. Fittingly, this came to me when I spent a few days in some kind of tired haze because I didn't get enough sleep at night.


So maybe I was already prone to like Sleep Donation before I even started simply because of the circumstances. Additionally, this story was the one that was able to end my reader's block. In short, right book at the right time!


And what can I say, I loved it! It is a beautiful and frightening little dystopian tale that always seems to linger right on the edge of the fairy tale. As this is my first Russel I have no means of telling if this is her usual writing style but I quickly fell in love with her metaphors and overall choice of words.


A quick example:


“[…] these noises exploding like grenades through her naked awareness – her mind crushed, in the end, by an avalanche of waking moments.”


To me this is terrifyingly beautiful. And there is so much more like it!


Of course the world of sleep and dreams - unexplored as it is, scientifically - lends itself to the language of the magical and fairy-tale-like. However, Russel grants us a glimpse into this alternate world or maybe possible future and once you look beyond the beautifully described state of hazy tiredness and not-quite-awake-ness of the people that populate that world it becomes something utterly frightening. A disease that takes away the only true escape from reality there is; one that makes its victims a prisoner in their own minds? Completely terrifying! I especially loved when the narrator described this state as being “locked flightlessly inside her skull”.


Apart from this, we get the typical dystopia - a meditation on the reasons why a society might be punished with a sickness like this. Have we - humanity, that is - brought this on ourselves? Are we deservedly punished? And a favourite nowadays: Ecocriticism - has this happened because we destroyed the planet?

However, Sleep Donation does not quite bring across the fear factor most dystopian novels brandish in their readers' faces. This might be because the cause for the no-sleep epidemic is never actually proven or because the sickness seems too magical and too "unrealistic" as to be perceived as a real menace or something that might happen if we stay on this path we're currently on.


Even though the dystopian aspects could have been a bit more fleshed out I really liked this magical approach to the genre; putting this novella somewhere between dystopia and magical realism. And don't forget the beautiful language, of course!