Sleeping Through War by Jackie Carreira
It is May 1968. Students are rioting, civil rights are being fought and died for, nuclear bombs are being tested, and war is raging in Vietnam. For three ordinary women in Lisbon, London and Washington life must go on as usual. For them, just to survive is an act of courage. How much has really changed in 50 years?
Sleeping Through War is one of the most moving and poignantly powerful books that I have read in a while. Its full of pain and compassion, tenderness and strength. It is an all-round breath-taking and provocative novel that speaks directly to women everywhere. Readers of any sex who approach it openly and receptively, will find a nuanced novel that explores the dichotomy between domestic lives and the political unrest and war around them. And more. So much more.
The book hit me on so many levels, invoked so many memories and emotions, and reminded me of the importance of history and writing. (The pen is mightier than the sword?) I was so immersed in the lives of these women against the political backdrop of world affairs, that I have gone back to my history books to re-examine the period both globally and personally.
Set in May 1968, which gives the story an interesting and electric historical background. It was a year of revolution, demonstration, and civil disobedience. Across the world, but especially in the UK, Europe, and the USA, the old guard were challenged, people rose up to demand equal rights, military veterans protested against war, immigration was as big a topic then as it is now. I was still in primary school, but in our house we all watched the 6 o’clock news. 1968 was a pivotal year that I remember well. I already had the history bug, so television, newspaper, and magazine reports were engrossing. I had great conversations with my father who explained much of it all to me. !968 was also the year that photography became a passion, primarily thanks to the Vietnam war, but also those great photo-journalists who reported on the Biafran famine, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the riots in Paris, and the civil rights demonstrations in the USA.
And yet amid the chaos and carnage, ordinary citizens carried on their ordinary lives, each day much like the last, and watching these global upheavals from the safety and comfort of armchairs in their front rooms. And here we have three strong, very distinct, and very separate women who never meet, and yet each of their lives are as altered and changed as much as the world is around them.
In Lisbon lives Amala, a widow and single mother doing what she needs to provide a good life for her son, Ricardo. Courageous, strong, compassionate, the struggle to survive takes its toll, but she holds on to her dignity regardless of the circumstances of her existence.
In London is Rose, a nurse in a care-home who took the enormous step of leaving her home and family and moving to England from the West Indies at a time when blatant racism was rife. She meets that racism at both work and in the street, but her life carries on around it regardless. She takes a young neighbour under her wing, mothering her with love and compassion.
In the Unites States is Mrs Johnson, a wife and mother with a son fighting in Vietnam. Uniquely her story is told through letters to her son, tender, sweet, and gives the reader great insight to the thoughts of ‘middle America’ at the time.
Interspersed between the chapters are news reports about events at the time. These are a stroke of genius on the part of the author. Not only do they act as a counterpoint to the lives of the women, but also drive home the comparison between the lives of men and women at the time. In the period, as with most other industries, reporting the news, journalism, and photojournalism was male dominated, so the reports are from a male perspective. If you put those reports against the narratives of the women, it will give you much to think about, and to compare and contrast.
The book is also very a pro pos, given what is happening in the world today, and again, plenty to compare and contrast, and to think about.
I could go on about the vivid imagery, the strong characterisation, about the excellent writing, and the great way the pace is varied, but I won’t. I’ve avoided going into detail because its important you meet these incredible women for yourself, on your own terms.
Do yourself a massive favour – read it. Read it now.
Jackie Carreira is a writer, musician, designer, co-founder of QuirkHouse Theatre Company, and award-winning playwright. She mostly grew up and went to school in Hackney, East London, but spent part of her early childhood with grandparents in Lisbon’s Old Quarter. Her colourful early life has greatly influenced this novel. Jackie now lives in leafy Suffolk with her actor husband, AJ Deane, two cats and too many books.