Book Review: Insomnia

|+|Triggers: Gore, domestic abuse, unreality|+|

“Getting old is certainly no job for sissies, is it?” -Bill McGovern (Insomnia)


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Author: Stephen King

Genre: Weird Fiction/Horror

Summary: Since his wife died, Ralph Roberts has been having trouble sleeping. Each night he wakes up a bit earlier, until he’s barely sleeping at all. During his late night walks, he observes some strange things going on in Derry, Maine. He sees colored ribbons streaming from people’s heads, two strange little men wandering around town after dark, and more. He begins to suspect that these visions are something more than hallucinations brought on by lack of sleep.

There’s a definite mean streak running through this small New England city; underneath its ordinary surface awesome and terrifying forces are at work. The dying has been going on in Derry for a long, long time. Now Ralph is part of it…and lack of sleep is the least of his worries.

My Opinion: Politics. Abuse. Insomnia. Death. Aging. This book is about a multitude of things and I was shocked with how well handled those topics were. The diversity was lacking in parts (no PoC, although there was some GLBTA+), though the characters were incredibly fleshed out and realistic. This book is a slow and fascinating burn, even if it’s a bit too slow at times. Overall I gave this book four stars.

Insomnia is incredibly complex, and part of the beauty of it is that you think you know what is going on, you think the book is about one thing, and the deeper you get the more and more you realize (along with the characters) that you’re not quite right-but you’re not quite wrong either. It takes a skilled writer to be able to pull that off in a way that’s not aggravating. My one, and perhaps biggest complaint is that despite being able to pull this off, King also goes a bit too slow at times. I felt like there was such a focus in getting into Ralph’s head that the world building suffered. True, this is not King’s first book about Derry, but this is a stand alone novel with a lot of unusual elements that we never get a full grip on. Throughout the book I kept wondering if I needed to go back and read It and then continue Insomnia. Thankfully the book has a lot going for it.

As I mentioned earlier, this book is about a multitude of things, and the topics that stood out most to me were the abuse, politics, and aging.

I adore how King treated abuse. Helen was a battered woman and King detailed her struggles and showed the impact abuse has not only on the victim but the victim’s friends as well. Helen was so much more than her abuse and throughout her escape from it she grew a lot. It was so refreshing to see because far too often another man has to come in and “fix” the broken victim. Helen heals herself without a man having to “rescue” her. This wasn’t a core topic but it was an important one that helped move the plot forward, and it was treated well. I just don’t see that kind of thing often enough in books and I’m so grateful that it was in here.

Tying into the abuse is the politics. Now this is one of the core elements of the book as the town of Derry is going crazy because a pro-choice speaker is set to come to the town to do a talk. The politics in the book focus on what happens when extremists take hold of a town and fear starts doing the talking. Through this we see the extremists’ thoughts, the thoughts of their victims (Helen for example), and we also see how people in the middle, who aren’t extremist for either side, are impacted. It’s unusual for me to read a book that actually explains the logic of an extremist while still showing that their violent actions are wrong and unjustifiable, while acknowledging that the extremist is still human. Each character, no matter where they stood on the subject had reasons for their thoughts, even if other characters or the reader didn’t agree with them.

Aging is a “terrifying” thing. If you’ve taken a developmental psychology class you know that the way media portrays older people and aging in general has a serious and most of the time, harmful, impact on the way that younger and older generations a like see the aging process. Typically people my age and younger don’t see older people (aka retired) as anything but boring and a wisdom dispenser. Older people see that in the media too and that leads to a fear of abandonment and lack of enjoyment of one of the most interesting times of life (no, seriously please go look up the psychology it’s really great!). King turns this on his head by writing a book about a retired man learning about a new world, having friends, and kind of sorting becoming a superhero. Ralph is lovable, he’s intelligent, he’s a man of action, while still being able to acknowledge his aging. He’s a man that ages gracefully and winds up having an epic adventure along the way. It was incredibly refreshing to read and reminded me of my grandparents in a very positive way. This is the kind of stuff we need more of.

Unfortunately while the treatment of abuse, politics, and aging were well done, the world building was shaky. This book in the hardback edition is  787 pages long, which leaves plenty of time for world building. Yet from time to time I felt like I needed to go back and read It which takes place in the same town, although Insomnia is clearly a stand alone book. I also felt like some short cuts were taken to not bother explaining certain things. The biggest excuse was the fact that those who were able to explain things and enhance the world building almost always ran out of time. “Oh look at the time! Main characters and you dear reader are going to be wondering about that for the rest of the book! Toodles!” Despite that, for the most part the length of the book is very well used and adds to the depth of Ralph and his friends and the overall mystery and suspense.

This book is long, but it’s an enjoyable slow burn of a book. King takes a lot of ideas and turns them on their head, giving the book a fresh feel while covering a lot of challenging topics. This was my first King book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

TL;DR: Insomnia is an interesting slow burn. It has many unusual elements, and for the most part does a great job of not letting the reader know more than the characters. My biggest complaint is the lack of diversity (yes, we do have some  GLBTA+ characters, although no PoC) and the somewhat shaky world building. Despite this, the characters were well fleshed out, the topics covered were done so respectfully, and King breathes life into what so many of us consider an old and boring story. When you get down to it, Insomnia at its core a story about what it means to grow (up or older, either works) and how everyone, no matter how boring they think they are has power. While I wouldn’t consider this book horror, it’s certainly weird fiction. If you’re into that sort of thing and are looking for a long read, go for Insomnia. You’ll probably stay up past your bedtime reading it.



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