In the City of Love’s Sleep by Lavinia Greenlaw

“Here we are – so deep within ourselves that we feel nothing move. This is where love sleeps. We think it’s something we build when it’s waiting for the space we make.”


Plot summary: Iris and Raif have a crush on each other. The shock of infatuation leads them to reconsider their life choices. They make tentative moves on each other whilst dealing with their respective problems. Love both exposes them to and liberates them from the pains of past traumas that haunt and mould their present lives.

[1] The first chapter of this book can only be described as SPECTACULAR. Concise, and rhythmic in the way that good poetry is, this first chapter bears witness to one of the BEST portrayals of the VIOLENCE of love at first sight I’ve EVER read. Read this chapter and you’ll fall in love with this book at first sight.

“And as she walked away she saw it all – that her body was ticking and had she asked and had he followed she would have done anything, so sharply did the space between them fall away. And so she ran.”

[2] Sometimes, good writing is a fault. For this book, the brilliance of the first chapter is a fault.

Nothing that follows will match the zenith of the first chapter. The language of the rest of the book, which is actually very stylish and imaginative, seems dead in comparison.

On a meta level this is interesting though. History casts a shadow over the characters’ lives as my history of having read the first chapter overshadows the rest of my reading experience, and as the book itself warns, love at first sight often ends in disappointment and pain, which is what has now happened to my relationship with this book. I feel like I’m experiencing the main themes of the book twice: both in the book and in real life.

[3] My overall impression of the book is mannered. I keep getting the sense that Greenlaw is trying too hard to shape the mundane into something profound, at the cost of sounding forced if not trite.

  • “In the city it’s not difficult to see the adjustments people have made. Some have locked up parts of themselves as if in a separate room. Others multiply and set off in several directions at once.”
  • “A million fragments of ordinary life – clay pipes, bear bottles, buttons and soup bowls – are cast up. They’ve been in the river for a hundred years, some thousands, but unless you take them now, they will return to the flow and be carried out to the river mouth and you will never see them again.”

The links Greenlaw tries to establish between the city and love seem quite tenuous and not that interesting.

  • “They stick to meeting in the centre of the city, where so much is designed to carry love along.”
  • “The point is not to map the city but to find our way towards each other within it while the river runs on.”

[4] Some remarks are nice and insightful though:

  • “Their affinity has yet to be tested or applied and so is easy to believe in.”
  • “We navigate the city by churches and fish markets just as we give emotions names that belong to a simpler time, if there ever was one.”
  • “The man on Iris’s right had been very attentive but she knew that she was getting the best of him. We start with our best selves. Had the woman he was with been stung like that, David would have leapt about finding ice and she would have been like Iris – smiling and grateful and dismissive of her pain.”
  • “The tissue of feeling can be prised apart into layers that are easy to define but not to reconcile. So we travel its surface, striving to feel whatever can be called right or good or reasonable.”
  • “We look to love as a way of transforming ourselves and so blame our lover if we don’t like who we become.”

[5] Greenlaw is good at imagery. This is why I finished the book despite finding it disappointing and at times cringey (see [4]).

  • “In the sea of the room, she appeared as dry land.”
  • “Did the wife carry home this encounter like a jewel slipped into her pocket, something she found in her hand now and then, turned over and let drop?”
  • “She adds her best wishes. A month passes and Iris starts to feel as if she’s waiting for an echo.”
  • “… when his hand reached out and touched her cheek as if testing the surface of something extremely frail.”
  • “She is so aware of the warmth and scent of his skin that she might as well be touching him, they might as well be pressed together, inside one another, right here.”
  • “There is the ice over the deep lake of loving and losing his wife, and there is the bed of that lake which is the death of his father.”

[6] Greenlaw makes a point of highlighting how the fact of being middle-aged gets in the way of dating. This is interesting.

  • “The people around them look young and at home. … The atmosphere makes Iris feels old and Raif somehow ashamed.”
  • “But this is not some candlelit bedsit or corporate flat. They are two middle-aged people trying to persuade themselves into sex on a Sunday afternoon.”
  • “She wants this to be fear but knows it might be age.”

[7] If you’re into psychoanalysis you’ll find this book relevant. There’s a whole chapter on compulsion to repeat, plus implicit references to the insistence of the signifying chain. There’s also a mention of woman as masquerade:

“Perhaps women are no more than a series of veils?”

And Raif’s biggest problem is classically Lacanian –

“What kind of life do you want?”

“Could you answer that question?”

Nothing particularly new or interesting has been said on these subjects though. They’re brushed upon and that is all.

[8] (spoiler alert!) The scene where Iris helps David shower after his stroke which left him unable to recognise her. This scene is incredibly moving.

“The way David takes her head and presses it to his is so familiar that she wants to stay there forever, being held by him until they’re both washed away.”

[9] Here are some nicely existential themes for fans of existentialism. Bad faith is portrayed as an important aspect of relationships. Most characters seem to struggle with their facticity and transcendence as being-for-itself –

“You were young, said her friends, the night before the wedding.”

“But that suggests I was some other self who can be discounted now I’ve come to my senses. Only I am that person. I will always be that person.”

Verdict: Wonderful first chapter, but the rest of the book is kind of meh, though not without some gems here and there. Maaybe recommend.


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