Go To Sleep

This is the story of one young woman's voyage into motherhood. Full of the same hopes and dreams as any parent-to-be, Rachel Massey soon realises that nothing about this new world is as she imagined. As the raw shock of sleep deprivation takes its toll on her and the truth begins to blur with the unreal, Rachel becomes consumed by one sole desire - to sleep. But how far will she go to get her baby to sleep.

The author on Go To Sleep

"When I finished Go To Sleep, it sat on my desk for nine months – the length of a pregnancy, ironically – before I felt able to let it go. In sharing it with the world I would be forced to revisit the place in which I wrote it - a place more desperate and disquieting than any place I have ventured before. Even now, I still find some of the passages uncomfortable to read, and not because they reflect my own experience of motherhood, but because they take me back to that very unsettling space in which I sat down and wrote the novel."

Book Reviews

"Helen Walsh's book is billed as 'issue-led fiction...devastatingly honest and shockingly painful at times...heart-wrenching story about one woman and her newborn child...strips motherhood bare...the book that everyone will have an opinion on...' None of which I pay too much heed to because I like to decide those things, but I really should have known better than to find myself halfway through and unable to stop turning the pages very late one night. It was one of those nights where you eventually stop reading because you're eyes feel like a gravel pit and refuse to stay open a minute longer, but the book is indeed harrowing and had my brain whirring away at the speed of light, so fat chance of sleep....which now I think on it seems very apt given the book's central theme of those days of relentless sleep deprivation following the birth of a baby. Thirty year old youth worker Rachel Massey finds herself happily single and unexpectedly pregnant after a one night stand with an old infatuation. Initially ambivalent, it is an early scan, when she thinks she may have lost her baby and subsequently finds all is well, that sets Rachel on that ante-natal course of hopes, dreams and much love invested in her 'bean'... 'And the moment I saw it, that tiny pulse on the monitor, the struggling mass no bigger than a kidney bean, that was it. That was me, gone - smashed with a love more ferocious than anything I'd ever known.' The book opens as Rachel, on maternity leave, is approaching her due date, now the size of a beached whale, and with the aid of flashbacks to fill in what has gone before, it was with some trepidation that I approached Rachel's delivery alongside her. Trained to spot when expectations might be pitched high, and therefore the reality all the more bruising, I was braced ready to catch Rachel. The best laid birth plans frequently don't translate into actuality, mainly because the baby hasn't read them, but also because who can know what lies ahead twixt first twinge and eventual birth if you haven't done it before. But, if you've been through it, who can ever forget the exhaustion with which most women embark on what follows. Frequently sleep deprived through a long labour, then that ridiculously magical night of awe and wonder when I for one lay awake wondering how did I do that, and how on earth had the baby lying in the perspex cot next to the bed fitted within, and where had everything else inside me gone while it did etc. And with hormones flying in all directions it's no wonder that someone only needed to look at me and say 'You look tired' on Day Three for me to burst into tears. And I was planning to stay in the maternity home for ten days as we did back in the 1980s and would be going home to masses of help and support; Rachel however is a twenty-first century mother, single, going home alone after a few days, fiercely independent and there's the shopping to be done. What follows is insidious, visceral, disturbing and makes for very uncomfortable reading at times as Rachel's mental health becomes increasingly fragile and unpredictable, dissembling to all around her whilst slowly descending into a state as near to puerperal psychosis as you are ever likely to read, and the likes of which I haven't read anywhere else, or expressed quite so powerfully, but for The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. And in the midst of all this confusion is little baby Joe...who I wanted to airlift out when it becomes clear that Rachel isn't bonding with him at all, indeed thinks he hates and has rejected her in the midst of her seriously compromised decision-making skills and borne of complete and unrelenting exhaustion. Unable to contain her own anxiety Rachel is incapable of containing Baby Joe's and he screams his fear loud at every opportunity. And that stark realisation that I wanted to rescue him from that situation became a turning point in my reading of the book because this is where Helen Walsh excelled ... by forcing me to make the judgement as a reader that can be so commonly made about women who are suffering from post-natal depression...that somehow they are unfit mothers and their babies should be removed, and me who thanks to the day job most certainly knows different In fact there were moments when all my safeguarding antennae were waving like crazy, Joe was definitely at risk, Rachel most certainly needed help, but it is at this point that it becomes most crucial that mothers and babies stay together and with good support in place to keep them safe, and all I was hoping for was that this would all come right on the next page...or the next one. Of course I'm not going to say a word more about the plot other than to say, having worked with so many mothers with post-natal depression and several with puerperal psychosis, this book has added real insights into how the mind may be working in situations like this. I have done some interesting new birth visits in my time and many where post-natal depression loomed. I once visited a mum who was holding her baby over the kitchen sink as I arrived and telling me it was a kitten and she had to drown it, another who opened the front door, handed me the screaming baby out on the garden path in the pouring rain and shut the door in my face. Tragically another who eventually several years later did commit suicide, and reading Go To Sleep has forced me to relive and rework those cases with a renewed understanding. It can be truly terrifying for everyone and Helen Walsh takes no prisoners, rooting her narrative in that terror and the mother's innate fear that this won't come right.. no wonder I couldn't sleep. There is a beautifully telling moment for Rachel... 'None of it was my fault - I know that now...' and the words 'this is not your fault' the most crucially important ones anyone can ever offer to a woman with post-natal depression, because anyone who has suffered from it (and I haven't) will probably recognise that self-blame comes very high on the list of things to beat yourself up about, quickly followed by guilt over not bonding with the baby, guilt about not being able to sort the house, cook, shop and feed a baby at the same time, guilt about not wanting to go out, guilt about not being able to get ready even if you did want to go out, guilt that everyone else seems able to do all these things ...the list is endless and punishing and very very real. So if I was going to sum this book up how would I do it... 'issue-led fiction...devastatingly honest and shockingly painful at times...heart-wrenching story about one woman and her newborn child...strips motherhood bare...the book that everyone will have an opinion on...' ...they were right and there will certainly be opinions on this one which I shall be looking at with interest. Helen Walsh has written a brave and uncompromising novel that absolutely needed to be written. " READ MORE

Independent on Sunday
"Go to Sleep, By Helen Walsh Helen Walsh produces a combustible mix of raw emotion and deep insights in her tale of a single, first-time mother-to-be in contemporary Liverpool Reviewed by Daneet Steffens Rachel Massey, who works with truant youth at Liverpool's Kirkdale Community Centre, is enjoying her maternity leave with mixed emotions: anticipating life as a first-time single mother but also feeling left out of the goings-on at work. Rachel wanders her beloved city streets, drinking in views of the Mersey, glancing in at cafés she used to frequent and nostalgically musing on memories of her Huddersfield-bred father's old garden and her super-organised Scouser mother's ability to polish windows till they shine. Interspersing her memories with visions of the future, Rachel conjures up blissful images of herself as a doting mother with a perfect, adorable child who – she's certain – is a boy. ("He'll be here, in my arms, any time now ...") While she waits, she mooches about in bookstores and churchyards, lulling herself into an all-encompassing mood that's both exhilarated and languid: "I find myself vacillating between the books I want to have read and those I want to read. I fudge it, plumping for a collection of Paul Bowles essays and Jackie Collins' Lady Boss." But this approach belies the fierce grasp of control that Rachel likes to have over her life and her experiences. During one of her walks, she ducks out of sight when she sees Vicky, a colleague from her National Childbirth Trust group. Vicky, already a new mum, "will do that thing", Rachel thinks, "of asking if I want to hold her baby; she'll think she's being nice. I'll have no choice but to feign delight and offer up my arms. And it's not that I don't want to hold her baby, I just don't want to hold a baby. Not yet. The truth is I've never held a newborn before ... At the back of my mind, ever since I saw that kidney bean on the screen, I've always had it that the moment should be special, the moment they heft my child on to my chest. I'm saving myself, as fluffy and girly as it sounds. For my baby. For him. I want it to be brand new, I want it to be perfect." Not relishing the thought of her dad's partner, Jan, being involved in the birth – Rachel's mother died 15 years earlier – Rachel stubbornly takes herself and her contractions to the hospital by taxi. And though the pregnancy is the result of "a knee-trembler with an old flame" – during last year's Christmas work do, no less – Rachel has already decided to keep the fact of the baby a secret from the father. So far, so meticulously planned. But she – and we – are in for a rude awakening. New motherhood proves to be a jangle of frazzled nerves, sleeplessness and seemingly endless, jagged crying on the part of young Joseph Ishmael Massey. (Yup, it's a boy.) Rachel is beside herself: determined to cope, frantically desperate to sleep and increasingly deceived by her own thoughts and impressions, as the world around her splinters into ragged slivers of bewildering days and bleary-eyed night-time walks. Then, too, there's the extent to which Rachel still feels highly invested in her very charged, very complicated relationship with the baby's father, Ruben. Whether conjuring up the sights, smells and sounds of Liverpool's Carnival, where a 14-year-old Rachel first falls for Ruben ("I was intoxicated. Ruben was my mission and the very act of tracking him was magical in itself"), or recreating the terrifying agony of sleeplessness – mind-sharpening and stupefying at the same time – Walsh is wonderfully in control of her world. Rachel's frenzied fatigue – which spirals rapidly and exponentially out of control – seeps off the novel's pages, inexorably carrying you along on her sleep-deprived journey. And you want to go along: Walsh is so terrific at making Rachel's universe immediate and vivid that you stay, immersed and riveted, as Rachel's world goes topsy-turvy: she now paces with a pram, exhausted, her once-comforting city sprawl, from Toxteth's Princes Park to the newly gentrified docks, suddenly offering meagre refuge and no relief. She and Joe pass entire nights awake, entire mornings glued to children's breakfast television. Rachel falls asleep randomly (on park benches; at the Tate Liverpool), leaves manic messages on family and friends' answering machines, clashes with healthcare workers and midwives, and goes on benders with strangers. One of the more unusual, urgent young voices writing in Britain today, and very much of today's Britain, Walsh boldly confronts contemporary life, and her latest novel is a combustible combination of raw emotion and deep compassion. Though she feels utterly alone, it's clear that Rachel is not, and as family and friends rally around, the novel suddenly takes on a new focus. This, in the end, is not a book about terror or pain or loneliness, but a book reflective of life itself, in which large, unsettling uncertainties are often generously balanced with small kindnesses " READ MORE

Fiction Uncovered
"In Go To Sleep, Helen Walsh deals unflinchingly with post-natal depression and sleep deprivation in lucid and convincing prose that presents the shock of new motherhood with laudable clear-sightedness. Yet, despite the honesty and starkness with which Walsh depicts the fraught interaction between mother and baby, what we are really left with is a bold, impressionistic picture of belonging and estrangement in a divided society. The protagonist, Rachel Massey, is more interesting for her talent in unpicking and unpacking her relationships than for her savage need to kip, however well it is conveyed. At the beginning of the book, Liverpudlian Rachel, an empathetic and capable social worker, is about to become a single mother. Ruben, the man who has impregnated her, knows nothing about it – Rachel conceived on a one-night stand, but hints that Ruben is an important and long-standing figure in her life. Rachel’s mother died a few years before the story opens, and although Rachel longs for her company and advice more than ever, there is an unspoken assumption that she would have deeply disapproved of Rachel’s choice. Rachel’s father, a well-meaning and kind-hearted academic, is doing his best to understand and support Rachel’s decision whilst preoccupied with his new partner Jan and the life they are setting up together. Despite the narrative importance of Rachel and Ruben’s love affair, which began when they were teenagers, the fraught triangle of Rachel, her father and Jan is the most powerful set of relationships in the book, epitomized rather than interrupted by the birth of Joe. Powered by misunderstood archetypes, like the wicked stepmother, helpless patriarch and wayward daughter, built on overlapping but vastly variable memories, and drawing on the ordinary ingenuousness and deceit of a workaday middle-class family, the strained but submerged substance of family tension is suddenly brought to the surface by Rachel’s brave choice: ‘[Dad] got to the flat just as the paramedics were wheeling us out. Dad took one look at the flailing baby on my chest and I could see the panic in his eyes. He was quick to correct himself, stoop down and take Joe’s hand, coo at his beauty – but one’s first and instant gut reaction is always the tell. And Dad’s reaction was: Shit! The baby’s black.’ There is no doubt that Walsh is a strong writer, but whereas the agony of sleep deprivation and the guilt of new mothers is difficult to describe to those who have never suffered either, the black/white and rich/poor dichotomy in Go To Sleep is powerfully conveyed. Walsh underlines the artificiality, ingenuousness and hypocrisy inherent in both divides with freshness and punch, weaving the sub-stories of the children Rachel works with, the liberal upbringing and the various relationships she’s had into the wider, complex tapestry of the society she lives in. Walsh is similarly excellent with the tender cruelties wrought within families; the emotional tug-of-war between newborn Joe and exhausted Rachel works as a visceral symbol of the struggle of familial life as a whole. Go To Sleep is a novel with its finger on the skipping, arrhythmic pulse of our culture. " READ MORE


© 2023 Helen Walsh