Review: Parasomnia by Eric Desmarais

I received a free copy of Parasomnia from Renaissance Press in exchange for an honest review.

I don’t do bad reviews often, largely as a matter of preference. However, in the case of Parasomnia, it’s a book that could so easily have been good with a bit more work, and that’s so much more frustrating than a book that was flawed from the start.

The premise of Parasomnia is this; Aux-Anges is an institute specializing in sleep disorders, and the novel follows several of the patients and one of the psychiatrists as they navigate their internal struggles. The disorders in question are varied, from insomnia and sleepwalking to sleep-related eating disorders and setting fires while asleep. As somebody very interested in stories about mental illness, my interest was already piqued.

Unfortunately, Parasomnia falls into a lot of traps even from the beginning. It starts off slow and meandering, exploring the life of one of the main characters and her high-school boyfriend for a solid chapter, even taking a voyeuristic approach towards her first time having sex before it all goes wrong. From there, it skips to telling the almost-full life of a therapist working at Aux-Anges and her not-so-imaginary friend. In both cases, it’s hard to understand what the stakes are in the book because we’re hearing the backstories before the story itself.

From there, Parasomnia makes a lot of bad decisions with its premise. The nightmares of all the patients with sleep disorders turn out to be supernaturally connected, falling into the well-criticized and overused trope of ‘magic mistaken for mental illness’. Terrence, the most homophobic and needlessly cruel of the patients, turns out to be a closeted trans girl (playing into the idea that we oppress ourselves – not something I’m comfortable with cis people writing), and the other patients start being able to see and hear the therapist’s imaginary friend.

What’s so frustrating is that many of the ideas here are good. I’m not opposed to any of these ideas, if well executed and by somebody who has either done enough research to know what they’re doing, has consulted sensitivity readers, or has personal experience and understanding. Unfortunately, from what I read of the book, none of these three seem to be true. The therapist and her imaginary friend are a very hollow, stereotyped depiction of Dissociative Identity Disorder. Adding to that, DID already suffers from ongoing stigma that it’s ‘made-up’, only from fantasy, or somehow tied explicitly to the supernatural. The sleep disorders themselves are mostly accurate or at least close enough, but the symptoms that show up in the book are either toned down or linked into the fantasy narrative.

Overall, Parasomnia starts from a creative place, and has a lot of good intentions, but I couldn’t enjoy it or feel comfortable with the choices it made with its plot, premise or characters.

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