My rating: 5/10
Close call, J.B. You almost didn’t make that 5, but my enduring fondness for your many years’ worth of earnest and good-humoured novels and essays and memoirs tipped the balance.
This is not so much a baddish book as a terminally undecided one. It reads like the author can’t quite decide on some rather major plot developments so has decided to make it up as he goes. Which can work, but in this case means false starts, dropped threads, and a general lack of a sturdy backbone to build the story upon.
And J.B. Priestley has tried his hand here at writing sexy, but it reads very much like the author is extremely uneasy with the style, and the hands-on-breasts and rigid (or not rigid) nipple descriptions are much more embarrassing for the reader than titillating. At least I found them so. I absolutely cringed, and mostly because it made the writer look inept and out of his comfort zone, style-wise. This is Priestley, after all, and you’d expect a higher level of capability in handling a scene. Any sort of scene.
Following closely on the heels of 1961’s uneven “suspense-thriller” Saturn Over the Water, Priestley further experiments with the genre, using the action to sugar coat some intellectual musings about the continual deterioration of societal mores, the dangers of state-sponsored paranoia (this is smack dab in the middle of the Cold War), and the status of women inside and outside of marriage. There are some fairly substantial shades of proto-feminism here, with Priestley trying his darnedest to articulate his support and appreciation for the “other side” from his masculine point of view.
So, regarding the actual story.
Here we have a freelancer journalist, Ben Sterndale, on the declining end of what was apparently a stellar career. He is offered a small job which will require him to use his investigative skills rather than his writing ability. A pale green piece of paper covered in mysterious figures and foreign handwriting has gone missing from an advertising agency office. Strayed or stolen, it is wanted back. Luckily there is a tiny corner of the paper left behind, with a few word ends which Ben interprets to be of German origin, and the investigation is on.
People with guns and sinister accents pop in and out, as well as a female person who is rather obviously not what she seems. Ben tenaciously follows every little lead, and by a combination of sheer bullheadedness and a fair bit of luck (courtesy our old fictional friend, the blissful coincidence) tracks down the secret behind the green paper as well as the girl.
A Helen MacInnes-like hectic tour of Germany plays a central role in the story; Ben-voiced-over-by-Priestley does not care for the Germans much – as I already sort of had gathered from his (Priestley’s) jibes in Saturn Over the Water – which adds an uneasy element to his adventurings in that country.
The mysterious paper and the secret it holds the key to are the least important thing going on here; so much so that even when we get a firsthand description of the “shapes of sleep” and their sinister inferences (spoiler: this would apparently be brainwashing and social engineering, to be delivered via subliminal messaging/advertising), we can’t quite believe that they are worth killing and being killed for, and they fade away completely in the last scene of Ben/Priestley mulling over the deteriorating state of the world and the changing status of women and their vital importance to future “peace and prosperity.”
I couldn’t help but wonder how much of this was due to Priestley’s private life influencing his writing. When The Shapes of Sleep was written, Priestley was sixty-eight years old, and just a few years into his third marriage, with archeologist/researcher and fellow writer (and Priestley’s co-writer in their 1955 collection of travel and opinion essays, Journey Down a Rainbow) Jacquetta Hawkes.
All in all, a rather unsatisfactory book, mostly interesting to this “fan” to enable me to check off another entry in Priestley’s widely-varied oeuvre. I may read it again one day to see if my impressions can be revised; then again, I may not.
Here, see Kirkus for its take, from June 15, 1962. I was amused to read this briefly cynical review after I had formulated my own, and to see that I was not alone in my disenchantment regarding this novel.
An uneven writer is our Mr. Priestley; one scarcely knows what to expect. This time as in last year’s Saturn Over the Water he has turned to suspense and an international spy story, but has fallen down in two aspects that made Saturn engaging reading. He never in this new book sets his scene so that the reader becomes absorbed in atmosphere and mood. Nor – on the story line – does he hold to a central thread that, intricate as the windings may prove, goes from Point A to Point B. This time he substitutes motion for action. His newspaperman, with a keen scent for the unusual, jumps from London to the Continent, from town to town and back again in Germany; but somehow he seems to be chasing his own tail, and even the near misses of danger peter out. Finally, there is a touch – just a touch – of the element of mysticism, which characterized his The Other Place back in 1955. And this too somehow dissipates the effect. And the injection of some random sex and a romance in which one cannot feel too involved does not add to the sense of unity demanded.