Laurie Canciani’s debut novel, The Insomnia Museum, sounded rather intriguing. The protagonist of the piece is a seventeen-year-old girl named Anna, who has spent her life living in a flat in a dilapidated block with her father, a hoarder and drug addict. Together, they have worked to create the Insomnia Museum, ‘a labyrinth built from dead TVs, old cuckoo clocks, stacks of newspapers and other junk Dad has found.’ Anna does not remember ever leaving the flat. She has an awareness of the wider world only in the way in which ‘noises penetrate her isolated world.’ However, she is forced to go outside when her father dies; she has to ‘try to survive in a place that turns out to be stranger and more dangerous than she could have imagined.’
Sunjeev Sahota writes that ‘the language pops and the narrator absolutely convinces in this risky, real novel about the road to knowledge and the pain of existing in our beautiful, broken world. I believed every single word.’ The author herself has revealed that she suffered from agoraphobia, and has thus passed on some of her own experience to her protagonist.
Anna’s father has kept her imprisoned inside since her mother left; the reasoning for this is not explored enough, but it feels like his response to tragedy: ‘When she was five or six he boarded up the windows of the flat and locked the front door and began to bring home boxes of junk that he piled in towers that stretched from the carpet to the webbing and the lampshades that were blackened and yellowed by lovely smoke. In the rooms the towers grew and lined the walls and seeped into the middle and each room became a maze of junk and mess and artefacts stolen from the houses of others.’
I felt that the real strength of The Insomnia Museum was the way in which Canciani captures the environment in which Anna and her father live. At the beginning of the novel, for instance, she writes: ‘She looked at him and he looked at her. The sound of the world was coming up through the plughole in the kitchen sink and echoing deep in the walls. There was a long howl. A siren. Dogs. Rain. Then the wind came in again and bobbed the head of Plastic Jesus who lived happy and useless on top of the broken Hi-Fi.’ The imagery too is quite brutal: ‘She looked at him. He was thinner than he had been and his skin was covered in blotches that worked their way from the medicine wounds in his arms to his neck and cheek and circled his fat lovely eye where he had recently begun to inject.’
Anna is, in some ways, very naive. She can neither read nor tell the time, and thus struggles immensely with the outside world. She is also not used to being around people other than her father, and often comes across as awkward in her mannerisms. Previously, she had thought that the world was shut to her. When she asks her father at the outset of the novel if she can leave the flat to visit the sea, his response is: ‘You’re too young to go outside. It’s dangerous.’
There is little which could be termed conventional about this story, its characters, or the way in which the author has chosen to write it. I did enjoy, on the whole, Canciani’s prose style, which is made up of quite unusual and experimental writing. Some of her sentences remained unfinished, and it was not always clear who was speaking in the non-demarcated conversations; this did become a little confusing at times. The imagery which was created was often quite vivid. When Anna’s father passed away, she observed: ‘He was so much older in the light. His ageing was complete. She saw the pain that had fallen from his thin cheeks and she saw the softness of the muscles that hung loose behind his skin and she held up the limbs that were like empty paper bags.’
The Insomnia Museum is highly unsettling, and there is a real claustrophobia which settles in. This element has been handled well by its author. Due to the length of the novel, there was a repetitive feeling with regard to ideas and descriptions. I feel as though The Insomnia Museum could have been far more impactful if it were shorter. Whilst the novel started in quite a promising manner, not enough time was passed in the flat with her father; what came afterwards for Anna was not overly interesting. If I am honest, I did not find the story an overly believable one.
Unfortunately, the whole thing did not come together for me. Whilst I found it initially compelling, some sections were too drawn out, and others, which began to lead in promising directions, were brief and felt unfinished. I did like the structure, which was made up of short, loosely connected chapters, but they did not sit overly well together to make a cohesive whole. Stay away from The Insomnia Museum if you, like me, are squeamish. There were many scenes which I had to skim due to the bleak violence which they portrayed.