Our lives today are so full on, we are expected to be available 24/7, our senses are assaulted during every waking moment and we are constantly bombarded with information. Our only downtime seems to be when we sleep. But what happens if we don’t or can’t sleep? I don’t mean experiencing an episode of insomnia, because apparently even insomniacs doze every now and again. I mean, really never sleep, don’t close our eyes, don’t switch off our brains to rest. In NOD, Adrian Barnes explores an alternative present where unexplained sleeplessness spreads across the planet, quickly bringing the world to a juddering halt. A small minority of adults still sleep and are attacked, sometimes fatally, by the “Awakened.” Children are still able to sleep, but have inexplicably stopped talking. The gradual deterioration of society after this end-of-the-world event is described by Paul, an etymologist writing a book on “sidetracked words, of orphaned words and deformed words.” Paul’s book has the working title NOD, a word that describes both the biblical barren nightmare-land to which Cain is expelled and the fairy-tale place children go to when they sleep. Paul is a sleeper and diarises his experience as society in his home town, Vancouver, breaks down quite rapidly and totally falls apart over three weeks. With no one to steer them, the “Awakened” turn to those taking advantage of the carnage, proclaiming themselves saviours to the increasingly exhausted and eventually sick and insane. Charles, a man mentally fragile before the sleeplessness sets in, takes control of a group of “Awakened” and names his new community NOD, having stolen the idea from Paul’s book. Here is an ironic twist of fate; the mad leading those growing ever more insane due to their lack of sleep.
Other end-of-world/post-apocalyptic/dystopian fiction I’ve read, tends to introduce a central character whose flaws and failings help them or give them reasons to survive. Although we see some of Paul’s flaws, his character is not set up to be the small man coming good in a time of chaos. If anything Paul doesn’t understand why he is among the few who can sleep – what has set him apart and what does this mean for his long-term survival? He feels drawn to the children who have flocked to the forests and roam in silent gangs finding wonder in everyday objects. The “Awakened” think the children hold the answer to sleep and hunt them down. Paul wants to protect this scarce resource and plays gangs of “Awakened” off against each other to ensure the children’s safety. He feels sure they must survive if the human race is to have any future. They are the silver lining.
Adrian Barnes has cleverly woven themes of mortality and human existence into this book. Ultimately we are all moving ever closer to our demise and what are we achieving with our increasingly frenzied and often meaningless activity? When we wake up (no pun intended!) to the fact the our lives are short, we may begin to use our time more constructively, but in NOD there is no rest for the wicked. Paul soon realises his life has been constrained by activity and choice:
“..when I realised I had no choice, a weight lifted from my shoulders. It was so odd to realise that choice had been a burden I’d been lugging around all my life – and that choice had only really existed because, until now, nothing particularly important had been at stake.”
It is interesting that Paul feels this sense of freedom after his epiphany about choice, at this point he also makes the choice to try and stay alive for as long as possible, deciding not to lie down and possibly fall asleep forever to dream his golden dream.
There is some beautiful writing in Adrian Barnes’ first novel. Descriptive flowing sentences with only functional dialogue. I loved the etymological asides and each diary entry has a title and definition or explanation. It is a little disturbing in places, especially the details of what happens to humans when they don’t sleep for days and weeks on end (although I don’t know whether any of these effects are scientifically proven). There is also a wonderfully ambiguous ending. It is a cerebral end-of-world novel in the vain of The First Century After Beatrice by Amin Maalouf. If you like that sort of writing, you will certainly enjoy this.
Thank you to Bluemoose Books for sending me a review copy of this book. NOD by Adrian Barnes is published on 31st October.
PS I have to say thanks to my friend Pam for suggesting the Maalouf book about 5 years ago. I feel I’ve now repaid the favour by recommending NOD; I’ll drop it in on my way past!