In Go To Sleep, Helen Walsh deals unflinchingly with post-natal depression and sleep deprivation in lucid and convincing prose that presents the shock of new motherhood with laudable clear-sightedness. Yet, despite the honesty and starkness with which Walsh depicts the fraught interaction between mother and baby, what we are really left with is a bold, impressionistic picture of belonging and estrangement in a divided society.
The protagonist, Rachel Massey, is more interesting for her talent in unpicking and unpacking her relationships than for her savage need to kip, however well it is conveyed. At the beginning of the book, Liverpudlian Rachel, an empathetic and capable social worker, is about to become a single mother. Ruben, the man who has impregnated her, knows nothing about it – Rachel conceived on a one-night stand, but hints that Ruben is an important and long-standing figure in her life. Rachel’s mother died a few years before the story opens, and although Rachel longs for her company and advice more than ever, there is an unspoken assumption that she would have deeply disapproved of Rachel’s choice. Rachel’s father, a well-meaning and kind-hearted academic, is doing his best to understand and support Rachel’s decision whilst preoccupied with his new partner Jan and the life they are setting up together.
Despite the narrative importance of Rachel and Ruben’s love affair, which began when they were teenagers, the fraught triangle of Rachel, her father and Jan is the most powerful set of relationships in the book, epitomized rather than interrupted by the birth of Joe. Powered by misunderstood archetypes, like the wicked stepmother, helpless patriarch and wayward daughter, built on overlapping but vastly variable memories, and drawing on the ordinary ingenuousness and deceit of a workaday middle-class family, the strained but submerged substance of family tension is suddenly brought to the surface by Rachel’s brave choice:
‘[Dad] got to the flat just as the paramedics were wheeling us out. Dad took one look at the flailing baby on my chest and I could see the panic in his eyes. He was quick to correct himself, stoop down and take Joe’s hand, coo at his beauty – but one’s first and instant gut reaction is always the tell. And Dad’s reaction was: Shit! The baby’s black.’
There is no doubt that Walsh is a strong writer, but whereas the agony of sleep deprivation and the guilt of new mothers is difficult to describe to those who have never suffered either, the black/white and rich/poor dichotomy in Go To Sleep is powerfully conveyed. Walsh underlines the artificiality, ingenuousness and hypocrisy inherent in both divides with freshness and punch, weaving the sub-stories of the children Rachel works with, the liberal upbringing and the various relationships she’s had into the wider, complex tapestry of the society she lives in. Walsh is similarly excellent with the tender cruelties wrought within families; the emotional tug-of-war between newborn Joe and exhausted Rachel works as a visceral symbol of the struggle of familial life as a whole. Go To Sleep is a novel with its finger on the skipping, arrhythmic pulse of our culture.