How well can you trust yourself? No matter how you cut it, you cannot. Your eyes can see things that are not present; you can hear things that you should not. Hallucinations are omnipresent, and in reading Café Insomniac you too will find yourself wondering what is real and what is imaginary, as the lines between real and unreal blur to a greater and greater extent.
Such is the predicament of Justin, insomniac and latterly a latte-serving ex-teacher in charge of the titular Café Insomniac, a co-venture with his father. The premise of Café Insomniac is self-explanatory – it is a café, open all night and ready to dispense caffeine and pastries to those who find themselves burning the midnight oil or otherwise unable or unwilling to receive a visit from the proverbial sandman.
However, things are not quite as they seem, as the sleep-deprived protagonist finds himself drawn into an unnerving series of events of worsening insomnia, seemingly sparked by a murder of one of his patrons. The insomnia soon becomes a total inability to sleep, and as Justin finds his reflexes duller and duller and the imaginary harder and harder to distinguish from the unimagined, things become stranger and stranger and the normal becomes unnerving. Can Justin get to the truth of the matter and save his sanity, or was he never really sane to begin with?
The book is a definite change of pace from anything else on the market at the moment. It sends the reader into an uncanny valley where things seem normal, but not quite. There is an undercurrent of just something strange to each sentence, each paragraph. As the plot progresses, the strangeness becomes a little bit more pronounced, just a little more, until you find your skin crawling as the writing crosses into something mildly, yet fundamentally, unnerving.
Mark Capell is a fluent word-smith to craft a work with such a profound effect on the reader. When the book is not attempting to rattle the reader, the descriptions of the characters and places are down to earth and can be related to, while at the same time keeping you just ever so slightly off-balance and continuing the ever-so-slightly unsettling narrative.
In keeping with the book’s departure from the market norms, the plot lends itself to the atmosphere. It is undeniable that it is a slow build-up all the way through, and yet it complements the tiredness of Justin and the fogginess of his mental state.
All in all, I highly recommend this book. It captures the confused and unsure mental state of anyone who has found themselves awake in the small hours of the morning, eluded by sleep and groggily fumbling with reality to try and find out just what is going on around them. As a little bonus, the author also proposes, on his website, a playlist of songs that appear in the book itself and which compliment the ambiance of the story. So tune in, read on and try not to slip away…
Book review by Benjamin Dagg of the Books Are Cool team.