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Book Review: The Sleep Room by F.R. Tallis

The Sleep Room by F.R. Tallis“The Sleep Room is a psychological ghost story that is heavy on the psychiatry but light on scares.”

The Sleep Room is the story of James Richardson, a promising young psychiatrist who is singled out by the enigmatic yet controversial Dr. Hugh Maitland to aid his research at the Wyldehope Hall mental institution in Suffolk. Maitland is pioneering a new treatment by which very unstable patients are kept in a state of semi-permanent sleep. Whilst Richardson has his reservations about the treatment, the opportunity to work with Maitland is too good to turn down. Forbidden to know anything about his patients, Richardson learns very quickly that nothing quite adds up at Wyldehope, and there are questions outside his research that he needs to get to the bottom of…

F.R. Tallis has produced a psychological ghost story, set in a 1950’s mental institution. The premise itself and many of the scenarios featured within the story have been done many times before but the concept of the titular sleep room is what makes this book different. The sleep room comprises of six unconscious women wired up to machines that monitor their vital signs and sleep patterns whilst they are sedated.

The concept of the sleep room has clearly been well researched by Tallis, who has a background in psychiatry. The atmosphere that Tallis is able to create within the sleep room is one of the highlights of this book; there is a palpable sense of dread, fear and reverence around the room that acts as the focal point to the story and the characters featured within it.

However, herein lies one of the problems with The Sleep Room, as the room itself does not play enough of a role throughout the book. The idea of simultaneous dreaming and the possible impact of this on the patients is an under-utilised plot point and something that could have taken the book in an entirely different and unique direction.

Another issue with the book is the central character Richardson. The novel is written from his perspective which, whilst providing plenty of scope for a twist ending, also limits the narrative to the fusty, dry musings of a psychiatry student. The first person narrative limits the scope of the story due to the nature of the main character. Richardson is a dull, repressed individual who, despite being a complex character, is rarely exploited or used to a level that allows the reader to emotionally invest in him.

The only time that an emotional connection with Richardson occurs is during his brief courtship of Jane Turner, a beautiful nurse who works at Wyldehope. Tallis does an excellent job of capturing the lust and desperation of a fledgling romance and the passages in which Richardson and Turner first begin to interact are amongst the best parts of the book. At this point the reader is able to warm to Richardson somewhat as he begins to reveal more of his character, however the abrupt end to the relationship and bizarre (although thoroughly explained) reasons behind this negate the effect that this good writing and characterisation have.

The set-up of The Sleep Room is also used negligibly throughout the narrative. The story is based almost exclusively in a mental institution yet the staff and the large majority of the inmates are underused. Wyldehope is desolate and miles from any kind of major town or city yet the atmosphere of the place as a whole, aside from the sleep room, is not one of oppression or mystery.

For all that Richardson ruminates about a poltergeist or a presence in his rooms or the darkened corridors, Wyldehope is not a creepy place, nor does it house residents that are frightening, deranged or serving the narrative in any way. There is one unhinged scene featuring the song ‘Row, row, row your boat’, but other than that, the inmates are mere footnotes in the overall story.

The Sleep Room relies upon how heavily the reader buys into the character of Richardson and his view of events in order to deliver an ending that rips the reader out of everything they have come to believe throughout the story. Tallis has his moments, but the ending falls flat due to the lack of emotional investment with the central character throughout the story.

 DAN HOWARTH

Extra Info

Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: (400pp)
Release Date: 4 July 2013

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