Theresa hosted this meeting and as it was our summer meeting, we held it in the afternoon. Theresa, Anna, Anne (a new member of our group), Sally, Kathryn, Gini, George, Liz and Lara all discussed the book sitting underneath the patio umbrella in the warm weather as we enjoyed drinks and nibbles, before tasting the matched chocolate.
The House of Sleep, by Jonathan Coe
The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe is the story of a group of people who shared student accommodation in 1984 and whose lives then intersect again twelve years later. The chapters alternate with the events of 1984 being told in the odd chapters and those of 1996 in the even chapters. The book is also divided into parts named to reflect the descending clinical stages of sleep, from ‘Awake’, through ‘Stage 1’ to ‘Stage 4’ and ending with ‘REM Sleep.’ The main characters are: Sarah, a narcoleptic, who mistakes her vivid dreams for real life; Robert, a student, who falls madly in love with Sarah; Terry, an insomniac, obsessed with movies; Gregory, a doctor, who believes sleep is a life-shortening disease; and Cleo, a psychologist, who works at the sleep clinic. The themes of sleep and dreams, reality and unreality run throughout this “clever, intricate novel” (Suzanne Berne, 1998.)
Theresa, who had recommended this book, said that “the good thing about having a bad memory was that you can re-read good books!” She had forgotten quite a bit about it and actually thought, on beginning to re-read it, that it was a bit slow and was worried about having recommended it. Kathryn, Sally and Gini all said that they didn’t think it was slow but just quite an easy read. Kathryn said that the book had reminded her of ‘The League of Gentlemen’ – funny but a bit dark and quite surreal and we all agreed that it would make a good film.
There were a lot of humorous episodes in the novel as well as some sadder themes, such as Robert’s and Terry’s stories. George and Kathryn both found the misnumbered footnotes chapter really funny, in a “Two Ronnies-type way” and Anna said that she found the medical references, particularly to the sleep disorders, really interesting.
There were a lot of coincidences in the book with the characters’ lives intersecting in a way that Gini felt was not very realistic. The numerous twists and turns left some of us quite confused. Sally said that she really enjoyed the book but there were bits that “she didn’t quite get” and bits that “didn’t quite fall together.” Gini felt that reading the appendices had really helped her understanding. Sally remarked that “At least it’s book group and I can ask everyone!” As the book was being discussed and we contributed our individual observations and understandings, there were exclamations of “Ahh!” ringing out as people suddenly realised connections that they had not made before. But we liked that it contained several circular references and threads that run in and out of the book.
There was some discussion over whether it was a ‘happy ending.’ Sally had thought that it could not possibly be the end and it felt to her as if “the last page had been ripped out!” Several of us thought we would like to re-read the book after discussing it as there was even more to get out of it than we had at first thought. “Crikey! There was loads in that book!” was how Sally summed it up and Gini remarked that it is “amazing how much you remember when you get going.”
Overall, we would recommend the book as a good read; it was well written, funny, engaging and thought-provoking.
For the chocolate, I was tempted to go for caffeine fuelled coffee flavoured bars but as a few of us are not that keen on coffee, I didn’t think that would be a particularly popular choice. So instead, I copied the author’s device of using a single location to bring together different characters and ideas. As the lives of Sarah, Robert, Gregory and Terry are cleverly woven together with a series of progressively bizarre coincidences in The House of Sleep, we take four bars from four different makers linked by the origin of the cocoa beans and discover how their tasting journeys diverge and converge just like Coe’s characters.
The book is built around two ideas: the relationship between Sarah and Robert, and the sleep clinic. They are brought together through the Ashdown manor house. Similarly, all the chocolate is made with cocoa beans from the Sambirano Valley in Madagascar. Sarah and Robert’s relationship provided the inspiration for the first two bars and the second two were inspired by Gregory and Terry and their shared preoccupation with sleep.
All the bars for this session were sourced from the fabulous chocolate library at Cocoa Runners.
Omnom, Sea Salted Almonds + Milk 45%
Everything about Sarah and Robert is complicated. So for Sarah and Robert, I chose two flavoured Sambirano Valley bars, both containing inclusions and sea salt; the sea salt providing a link to their afternoon on the beach, which turns out to be pivotal in their relationship.
We started with Omnom’s milk bar with chunks of sea salted almonds: a gentle expression of Madagascan chocolate and a bit ‘nutty’, like Sarah. We love Omnom’s packaging and coincidentally this time the illustrations were of sheep! We all thought the aroma was mild and subtly fruity. Then, on tasting the chocolate, everyone went silent. I think they were just deciding whether to enjoy the smooth melt of the chocolate or munch on the gorgeous pieces of salted almond. Gini loved the toffee notes of the chocolate, she thought it was lovely and fudgy but she wasn’t too sure about the combination with the nuts. For Sally, the sweetness of the chocolate was nicely balanced with the saltiness accompanying the almonds. The almonds were full of flavour but gentle enough to harmonise with the fudgy milk chocolate. It was the sea salt that provided the contrast with the sweetness. Overall, very moreish, and not a bad match for Sarah.
Menakao, Arabica Cocoa Nibs & Sea Salt 63%
So for Robert, I chose a 63% bar from Menakao with added Arabica coffee, cocoa nibs and sea salt, hoping for a similar but more complicated experience.
The aroma was stronger with definite red fruit this time and just a hint of sea salt. But the taste experience was a little confusing. We all thought the salt was one of the first flavours to reveal itself. It kept resurfacing but wasn’t as spikey as the salt in the Omnom bar. There was less of a consensus over the coffee; it was robust for some but less intense for others. The red fruit kept breaking through too, which for me balanced nicely with the coffee notes. The texture of the nibs brought in another dimension, giving a harsher mouthfeel compared to the larger almond pieces in the Omnom bar. Anna wasn’t sure how the crunchy texture of the nibs added to the experience but they did bring a final resurgence of the red fruit notes at the end. There was a lot going on in this bar. With some parallels to the Omnom bar, this was a successful match for Robert but the experience was definitely more complicated and a bit disorientating.
Akesson’s, Bejofo Estate, Madagascar 75%
The second two bars, again made from beans from the Sambirano Valley, were chosen to embody the two male characters of Gregory (Dr. Dudden) and Terry and their time at Ashdown after its conversion into a sleep clinic. Gregory thinks he and Terry are ‘the same’ but despite their shared belief that they can do without sleep, they are of course, quite different. For these two characters, I chose two classic Madagascar bars, both made with beans from the Bertil Akesson estates.
We all took in the dark, chocolatey aroma of the Akessons bar with its promise of red berries. It opened with a dramatic citrus hit accompanied by a lovely full bodied melt. Both Sally and Lara commented on how the beautiful smoothness countered the initial acidity to give a wonderfully balanced taste experience. Then came the red berries, or blackberries for George. This time it was the citrus notes that keep re-emerging and then the fruit dissolved into a deep chocolately aftertaste: long, lingering and very satisfying. I was thinking of Gregory when I chose this bar as I was expecting something intense and dramatic, which it was, but we all agreed that this bar was way too smooth and balanced for the erratic Gregory. If fact, someone (who shall remain nameless), suggested that a nutty bar may have been more appropriate for Gregory, particularly as she distinctly recalled the reference to his ‘walnut’ sized appendage as he emerged naked from the cold sea after a late night swim!
The Smooth Chocolator, Madagascar 72%
Also using Bertil Akesson’s beans, this bar was made in Australia by Yoon Kim at The Smooth Chocolator (coincidentally based in Lara, we noticed on the packaging). It’s really earthy aroma presented its own character right from the start. The citrus notes hit first again but this time they were more mellow: sweeter and creamier with more lime notes. It was smooth but slower to melt. Anna and Lara thought the fruit notes were more intense, giving plums, raspberries and jammy notes, all with earthy undertones and although the citrus notes did resurface, they were not as assertive. The finish was chocolately again but milder this time with a pleasing aftertaste and for Sally a niggling acidity.
These were too quite impressive bars, but despite their similarities in origin, we had discovered some quite distinctive character traits and opinion was split over which was the best.
We had enjoyed the motley mix of characters of The House of Sleep and I think we enjoyed the different takes on the Madagascan beans just as much.
The bars that we would most like to take home went like this:
Lara – Omnom Seasalted Almond + Milk
Theresa – Menakao Arabica, Cocoa nibs & sea salt
Anne, Gini & Sally – Akesson’s Bejofo Estate, Madagascar
Kathryn, Anna, & Liz – The Smooth Chocolator, Madagascar
For our next meeting, we are reading The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler