Sleep. We do everything we can to avoid it when we’re young, and embrace it willingly when we’re older. But what if some of us could never sleep again? Adrian Barnes attempts to answer this question in his debut novel from Bluemoose Books, Nod.
Nod tells us the story of Paul, a linguist who is writing a book on lost words called Nod, his live-in love Tanya, and Charlie, a mostly harmless local nut who looks upon Paul as something of a friend, even if the feeling is not exactly reciprocated. One night after running into Charles at a local eatery in the West End of Vancouver, Paul wakes to find Tanya cranky and restless – she’s been unable to get a wink of sleep all night. It turns out that she isn’t the only one, and soon people begin differentiating the “Sleepers” from the “Awakened”. At first, people take it all with a certain air of optimism – after all, if some people are still sleeping, there must be a solution. And it seems as though children are having none of the sleepless nights their elders are suffering from whatsoever. But that optimism soon peters out as people enter the early stages of psychosis, and the people who are able to sleep become not only rare, but endangered.
The novel is set in and around Vancouver’s West End and Stanley Park, a true urban jewel of old-growth Northwest rain forest a proverbial stone’s throw from the city. Barnes plays with real locations, old mythology, and long-forgotten words to weave a world that dips in and out of reality, using a voice that at times plays with the reader’s sensibilities, reading more like a poetic tripping of the light fantastic rather than a straight narrative piece of fiction. This reminds me somewhat of Neil Gaiman’s ability to come across as an old friend in his prose, and also of some of Clive Barker’s best fantasy (Imajica and Weaveworld). On a classical note, Barnes’s wordplay also reminds me of some of D.H. Lawrence’s shorter works, such as “The Fox”; much like Lawrence, this novel is less interested in where the characters are going than in how they get there.
While this kind of narrative goal can be frustrating (I was particularly disappointed that we are never given the keys to the “golden dream” dreamed by the sleepers – a tantalizing hint of some meaning behind the chaos that never quite materializes), there is, for me, more than enough going on to keep my interest, and it is deftly enough written that I will be looking forward to more of Barnes’s work in the future. Overall, a very strong first outing from a fresh voice – here’s hoping that Barnes continues with more of the same.
Steve’s Grade: A-
I found it somewhat ironic that Nod had no problem keeping me up late at night. Well worth a look for fans of post-apocalyptic or dystopian flavors of science fiction.
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