Sleepless nights. We’ve all been there right? Whether it’s burning the candle at both ends trying to meet a work or university deadline, or going on an all-night bender followed by an early start, sleepless nights and life often go hand in hand. Usually it’s just a case of hitting the hay early the following night and we are right as rain again. But what if this became impossible, and a life without sleep became the norm? How would you react? How would you cope?
As you can imagine, it would be a serious problem. After just six days, sleep deprivation will lead to psychosis and after four weeks, the body will begin to shut down and die. This is the reality facing the world in Nod, the debut novel by British author Adrian Barnes. Barnes obtained a Masters in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University, after which he channelled his love of storytelling into his debut novel.
Nod was originally published in 2012 and shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2013, which recognises the best science fiction novels published in the UK in the previous year. Two years ago, Titan Books reissued it with a striking new cover and also a copy of Barnes’ acclaimed essay, My Cancer is as Strange as Fiction. A heart-rending account of his diagnosis of brain cancer (which sadly claimed his life in January 2018), it bears some striking similarities to his characters’ decline in Nod.
Our story is told from the point of view of Paul. An author with misanthropic tendencies, the only human he has any affinity with is his wife Tanya. He recounts the fall of society in diary form, when chronic insomnia sweeps the planet. Initially, everyone remains calm, merely curious at such a coincidental happening. But by the end of night two, panic and hysteria set in as the seriousness of the situation becomes apparent. Paul is branded a Sleeper, being one of the few people still able to drift off, and prone to unexplainable ‘golden dreams’. He must endure the agony of watching Tanya’s decent into madness, having been branded an Awakened along with the majority of the human race.
Things take an even stranger turn when it emerges that a large portion of Sleepers are children, who have all been struck dumb. And Paul must tread carefully when the increasingly zombie like Awakened interpret his most recent book as a harbinger of the apocalypse. With time running out, and a cure nowhere in sight, those who still have their sanity must act quickly before civilisation as they know it crumbles.
Barnes ticks the boxes of dystopian fiction with a ravaged world, people-in-peril and a ‘them vs us’ dynamic. But it’s also more literary than your average dystopian novel. Nod poses questions that challenge our perceptions of what it means to be human, and ponder why we put such blind faith in things. Paul wonders at one point: “when we doze off each night, there’s never the slightest guarantee that we’ll wake the next morning. So why fear death when we’re happy and eager to make that leap of faith each and every night of our lives?” It’s one of the many hugely thought-provoking points in the book that stay with you even after you’ve turned the last page.
Nod stands out from its contemporaries in how it is able to take something so simple such as the ability to sleep, something we take for granted, and turn it into the stuff of nightmares. The book starts slow but builds along with the character’s desperation. We see the Awakened turn to anything they can think of to force them to sleep. Forgoing anything electric, turning out every light, drinking, praying, sex; things from everyday life synonymous with living have now become obsolete.
And it’s safe to say that some of the imagery in this story is not for the faint hearted. An Indian woman and her child are torn apart by a sleep deprived mob, while groups of people stalk innocent children for their blood, believing it will free them from their affliction. It prompts the question: what do we become when our human nature is taken away?
For the most part, Barnes handles the story well, with exceptional, thought-provoking writing. The characters are generally compelling, especially Paul, who it’s impossible not to root for in a world gone mad. However, the last couple of chapters stumble in their delivery, becoming ironically sleep inducing. And the novels ending could be better; rather than giving a definite close, what happens is left open to your interpretation. It’s not a deal breaker in terms of enjoyment of the book, and it’s most definitely still worth a read for its uniqueness, but it is disappointing given the high calibre of story-telling up to that point.