Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Colm Tóibín's "Sleep" was originally published in the March 23, 2015 issue of The New Yorker.

March 23, 2015Colm Tóibín is a favorite, and “Sleep” — enigmatic, rhythmic, invasive — is one of his best.

The story begins peacefully. The narrator, an unnamed Irisman, is lying in bed with his lover, a younger Jewish man.

I know what you will do when morning comes. I wake before you do and I lie still. Sometimes I doze, but usually I am alert, with my eyes open. I don’t move. I don’t want to disturb you. I can hear your soft, calm breathing and I like that. And then at a certain point you turn toward me without opening your eyes; your hand reaches over, and you touch my should or my back. And all of you comes close to me. It is as though you were still sleeping — there is no sound from you, just a need, almost urgent but unconscious, to be close to someone. This is how the day begins when you are with me.

The narrator seems so at ease. As the story moves forward, it appears he’s the stable one in the relationship, the one who has dealt with the demons of the past and who can support his lover, who is attending sessions with an analyst.

However, the peace, the ease, turns out to be a bit of a façade.

I feel happy, rested, ready for the day as I return from the shower and find you lying on your back with your glasses on, your hands behind your head.

“You know that you were groaning in the night? Almost crying. Saying things.” Your voice is accusing; there is a quaver in it.

“I don’t remember anything. That’s funny. Was it loud?”

This is not the first time the younger man has been frightened by the narrator’s hidden torment. He even admits he’s talked to his analyst about the narrator, and the analyst has recommended the narrator seek help.

“Sleep” proceeds at a pleasant, slow pace that matches the narrator’s attempts to avoid whatever it is that is causing such fear. He knows it’s there, he has never dealt with it, and he just waits for it to go away when it shows up:

The fear comes on Saturdays, and it comes, too, if I am staying somewhere, in a hotel room, for example, and there is shouting in the street in the night. Shouting under my window. I keep it to myself, the fear, and by doing this sometimes I keep it away, at arm’s length, elsewhere. But there are other times when it breaks through, something close to dread, as though what happened had not occurred yet but will occur, is about to do so, and there is nothing I can do to stop it. The fear can come from nowhere. I may be reading, as I often do on Saturdays while you practice or go to a concern with your friends. I am reading and then suddenly I look up, disturbed.

I won’t go into the fear here, either, but I do want to say that I found the story’s exploration fascinating and fulfilling. An author can set up quite a problem when they keep a secret from the reader: with the revelation be too trite? I found the story natural and deep, in all of its simplicity. The complexity comes from Tóibín’s exceptional exploration.

Part of that exploration is Tóibín’s use of “you,” another narrative technique that can quickly turn sour. Here, the “you” is not me, the reader; Tóibín is not using this as a method to get me involved. Here, the “you” is the Jewish lover, who is a good twenty years younger than the narrator. And, importantly, “you” is not around to hear any of this. Consequently, the use of “you” emphasizes the narrator’s sadness, his longing, his need to talk to this person, at least in his head, even though by the time the story is related “you” is frightened of the narrator.

Thus, the “you” becomes another technique for creating distance. It feels like he’s dealing with something, expressing something, but he’s not actually telling “you” anything because the young lover is not actually present when the story is being told.

Fascinating and brilliant, the story ends perfectly. There’s a lot here, so I look forward to your thoughts in the comments below.

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By |2015-03-16T13:22:33-04:00March 16th, 2015|Categories: Colm Tóibín, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |14 Comments


  1. Jan Wilkens March 16, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    Beautiful story. The internal dialogue the narrator has with “you” is so honest and aching that as I reader I felt I was almost a bit of a voyeuer. The journey to Dublin to connect with the death of his brother and to accept the loss of his partner is epic in its reach. Returning to his past, to his homeland and journeying into his psyche was both heartbreaking and hopeful. I was so rooting for him to exorcise some of the pain, to lessen the intensity of his dreams and to have a shot at love and at life.

    His partner says there are so many “bad Irish playwrights.” To the contrary, if one were to read ONLY Irish writers and poets, it would be a reading life well spent. Colm Toibin is a perfect example of the Irish writers blending of setting, memory and the absolute beauty of language. Best read I have had in awhile.

  2. Trevor Berrett March 16, 2015 at 4:13 pm

    Colm Toibin is a perfect example of the Irish writers blending of setting, memory and the absolute beauty of language.

    Oh, wonderful insights, Jan! So glad it worked so well for you too!

  3. Adrienne March 16, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    I agree with Trevor – the narrator needs to talk to his lover. But it does not feel like this story is a call for reconciliation. It seems to be a eulogy, a tale of resignation. And it frustrates me. He does what seemed to be the most difficult thing to do, but then he does not take the next step to return the texts, to make a call, to welcome the lover back. He will now carry the “full burden of the night’s sleep” on his own.

    The narrator needs to tell his side, his perception, his experience. He needs to tell it without his constant decision to protect the younger man. “I don’t want to disturb you”. This sense of protection and care is reiterated later in the story, “… I would never have done this to you.”

    Is the brother another side to the narrator? He remarks after hypnosis, “Then there is nothing, really nothing – the nothing that I am and the nothing that is in the room now. Whatever has happened, it has ended…. There is nowhere else to go.” It foreshadows the true end of the relationship. But it saddens me that he knows this and does not seek for that reconciliation. He likes “to think that [he is] silent, but how can [he] tell” if he is alone,

    This is a senseless death that is memorialized in a sleepy voice, half-awake and half-accepting.

  4. lotusgreen March 20, 2015 at 4:34 pm

    Wonderful comments above, which, this time, I have read before writing. I am left with such mixed emotions after reading this sad, beautifully written story. I want to sue the shrink for irresponsibly hypnotizing someone he barely knew, knowing the depth of concerns involved, and knowing this person had no stable on-going care in place.

    I’m disappointed and a little confused that the fact of that missing year in his lover’s life, which he assumes speaks of a suicide attempt, and feeds the little-expressed sense of loss for his brother, is never brought up. Why he never presses about that year. Why he never explains any of these connections to his younger lover. I just don’t get it. But, somehow, I believe it.

    And his condition, where-he-is, at the end — it seems unfinished. Though I’ll admit, ain’t a soul alive anything but unfinished, I’d like to have seen evidence that he hadn’t “died” in vain. Without any further knowledge about the narrator’s life, both past and present, I’m left somewhat dissatisfied, though I recognize life is like that sometimes.

  5. Adrienne March 20, 2015 at 4:38 pm

    @lotusgreen –
    I appreciate your final comment – about feeling “somewhat dissatisfied”. I’ve been thinking about this story all week, and doing a lot of “ya, but” and “why would he” and “it just doesn’t make sense that someone”. The story definitely got under my skin and emotion… and I, too, and feeling “somewhat dissatisfied”.

  6. lotusgreen March 20, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    Interesting, Adrienne. Thanks.

  7. lotusgreen March 20, 2015 at 6:45 pm

    Something else hasn’t been mentioned, and I feel it is now time to bring shame upon myself. It’s not until the 8th paragraph that we come across this bit: I am old enough to remember when things were different. But no one cares now, in this apartment building or in the world outside, that we are men and we wake often in the same bed. (Beautiful sentence, though.)

    Up until that moment they in fact had not been two men but rather a younger woman and an older man. I was shocked and dismayed to note how differently I suddenly felt towards them — as though “that changes everything.” Of course the story carries on and that sense dissipates. I think.

    To recognize about oneself that one is still pinned by the definitions by which we know ourselves and our others, is to feel the true hypocrite. I was just thinking yesterday about the fact that in addition to the genetic imperatives for which we pen ourselves and our others off from the rest, there are the reasons that the world is just too complicated to “get” anything more than the narrow perspectives through which we allow ourselves to see. I hope I’m making sense. It was a wake-up call.

  8. Adrienne March 20, 2015 at 7:33 pm

    I think it is natural to connect in “our” way to stories. I, also, assumed it was a younger woman and man until then. Stories take us from where we ARE and brings us to where we CAN BE. I didn’t feel hypocritical, just that I needed to adjust what direction I came from. I can’t begin to see the world from any other location. But with the story, I can grow.

  9. Jan Guerin March 21, 2015 at 12:53 am

    As I know Toibin is gay, I read the story with that sensibility. The pain from their past experiences however, are about loss and love and deep anxiety and transcends their sexuality While the past traumas (a brothers death. A suicide attempt?) are not fully explained, the issues thwart their ability at deeper connection. A loss for both.
    The writing was like poetry and the fugue state of the hypnosis was terrifying. What happened? Where was he?
    So great to read this excellent story after the Stephan King clunker.

  10. henry March 23, 2015 at 1:06 pm

    Not knowing what exactly was the source of the narrator’s distress made the story even more effective for me. There is a sense that we are following the narrator down a path of unknowingness that envelops this reader with a feeling of dread, of mystery. The pain is real, made to feel real by a sort of stream of consciousness approach that puts us right inside this narrator’s torment. The narrator’s lover was maybe even something of a non-entity, a tool of inspiration for the narrator to begin his very real physical journey across the ocean to his homeland (what better place than where we come from to grasp the meaning of a hidden personal torment) and the psychological journey made to find those seeds that seem to have sprouted into the present dreams and/or nightmares of the narrator.

    At first I thought it was unusual that the narrator’s lover would be so quick to up and run, but then I thought it must be some very disturbing display which has manifested itself in the narrator physically as he sleeps to drive the lover away. And then I thought yes it is possible that such behavior, even to someone close like a lover, because it is impossible for him to comprehend, would very well be that frightening, that disturbing.

    And of course as the story progresses we are witness to the fear/confusion of the narrator: “It is as if I had been tiring myself out in the darkness, rather than resting”.
    A sentence like the following is one I can as well relate to, and adds veracity to the narrator’s experience: “It is like a moment from childhood, or even adulthood, where I am able to stop worrying about a pressing matter for a moment in the full knowledge that the worry will come back.” That is a weird mixed feeling to have I think. To be able to be in a place of calm despite knowing it’s only temporary. But I get it.

    One final thought. To listen to the author’s reading adds to or reconciles with the psychologically mesmerizing effect of the piece.

  11. Sean H March 27, 2015 at 9:53 pm

    A strong piece by Toibin. I’d only read Brooklyn, an exquisitely crafted but relatively boring novel (it’s like the kind of thing that people recommend to their elderly mothers), and though this one seemed a little lacking in imagination (it would’ve been cooler had it been writer by a straight writer or a woman) it drew me in pretty quickly, engaged me with thoroughly understood characters and a scenario just the right size for a short story, and ended in a memorable way. It would teach well in a craft workshop and it might be a tad schematic but overall I’m giving this one a thumbs-up.

  12. Michael F. March 29, 2015 at 11:21 am

    I was particularly moved the description (albeit imagined) of the brother’s death. Toibin has been hit and miss with me (I haven’t read a great deal by him), but this story definitely hit. The depictions of loneliness and of suppressed mourning seemed spot on, whatever other details may have been off. I also enjoyed his comments on and images of Dublin. I could see and feel the streets and the rooms, even though I have not been there in a number of years.

  13. Ken April 11, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    I understand the above comments that express a desire for the narrator reconnecting with his lover and for more closure. I also feel the piece works perfectly anyway. It’s the mystery and ambiguity of things–the fact that we can be calm and yet know we will worry again–that is on display here; perhaps one never heals or even knows if one has healed. On a stylistic level, this is perfection.

  14. Madwomanintheattic April 12, 2015 at 1:40 pm

    I agree with Ken. The story moved me deeply. the hypnotic sequence took me there too. Thinking about it, I recognize the symmetrical unmentioned hiatus in both men’s lives – the lost year and the brother’s death, made the future unrealized seem perfect. I do not like speculating in fiction about what might have happened, what is not in the story – what is there is all that matters. Like Lotusgreen, I was surprised at my own surprise to find that the lovers were men, primarily because the opening lines so much reflect my and my partner’s morning behavior that I was caught in a different mirror. The ways that fact mattered to the narrator as merely historic delighted me. Good for now.

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