A review of Adrian Barnes’ “Nod”

‘Nod’ is one of those rare books that, on closing, you think, and may even say “Wow.” You may even feel a little tearful and moved, and want to immediately spread the word about what the novel has made you feel, or what you’ve learnt.  This is what this novel did for me.

Nod is an apocalyptic thriller featuring a disease that ravages the human mind and turns the sufferer into a zombified maniac.  At this point you would be right in pointing to a book mountain of similar works.  But what sets Nod apart is what makes it so brilliant.

First, it’s the originality of the premise.  It’s lack of sleep, and a consequent slow disintegration of the mind, that’s the plague in question here.  Set in Vancouver, it’s protagonist, a writer named Paul, is working on his latest treatise on the vagaries of words and the history of words that is also named ‘Nod.’  He’s living with his partner, Tanya, the breadwinner in the householder, and enjoying a comfortable existence, when he has a dream of a golden light.  It’s a dream he shares with everyone else.  At least those who slept.  And most people, it would seem, didn’t sleep, in a new plague of insomnia that is not slow to change the world into a crazed reflection of its former state, the benchmarks being, 6 days of mental and physical deterioration leading to psychosis, and 4 weeks, death.  All of this shot through with mother-lodes of rage and panic.

In this strange new world, those who can sleep, of which Paul is one, are termed “Sleepers,” those who can’t, the “Awakened.”  And those who society formerly pushed to its margins, the homeless wanderers, the already mentally ill, the dispossessed, now rise to an awful ascendancy.  Typical of this class is Charles, a “quick he’s coming, don’t catch his eye” type who would, if he cornered you, bury you in an avalanche of conspiracy theories.  The new world of ‘Nod’ allows him to rise in leadership status.  You see, Charles has found a draft manuscript of Paul’s ‘Nod’ and he is using this, Scripture style, to form a new Church of the Awakened where words take on savage new meanings, freighted with unholy power.  And he’s chosen Paul to be his first Prophet.

Paul meanwhile must watch the world and Tanya disintegrate before his eyes.  Ever had no sleep or very little, and felt your mood take on a heightened new pitch of depression, anger and anxiety?  Or a weird euphoria?  Well this is what happens to most of the world’s population now, with exponential acceleration, as they act increasingly like the rage filled undead your more typical zombie fare.  Strangely the Sleepers are disproportionately represented by children, who become silent and watchful and band together in new communities in urban parks.  They become demonised and hunted by the Awakened, or subjects of lab-rat experiments in an equally chilling group called ‘Cat-sleepers,’ those who pretend to sleep (through make up to cover dark circles, and a pretence of normality) to trap unwary sleepers to try and medically dissect from them what makes them sleep.

Throw into the mix a rogue nuclear warship piloted by a horrifically burnt morphine addicted Captain, and Hell has indeed come to town.

Paul is a compelling narrator of events, and his love of words and appreciation of their power to shape meaning and worlds, and their most eccentric forms, historical and present, is the prism through which he views events.  His book within he book ‘Nod’ is not dissimilar to “Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” and each chapter begins with something like an entry from that work.

It’s this strange marriage of the cruciverbalist (lover of crosswords) and the apocalypse survivor that makes this such a smart and original read.  I’m a fan of cryptic crosswords and other word games myself, and often reading Nod I was reminded of the hours I’ve spent in this world.

The book finishes with an essay by the writer on his brain tumour, of which he was diagnosed slowly after sending Nod out for publication.  It’s a powerful essay on the ending of worlds and the attendant re-calibration of values and meaning.  It is powerful and I urge you to look it up here, and read ‘Nod.’  Don’t worry if you are not a genre fan of apocalyptic thriller, this novel truly transcends genre.

 

 

 

 

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