Reviewed by David Harris
At first sight this book is (post)apocalyptic fiction in the classic vein, meaning, of course, John Wyndham. We are introduced to the world as it is shortly before a catastrophe. Our narrator, Paul, and his partner Tanya then witness the change and are soon in a new world, battling for survival – and their greatest challenge isn’t the disaster itself but the hostility of other survivors, who have not coped with the catastrophe so well. The immediate task, then, is to clear away those unfortunates and begin to rebuild the world, after which we see how all will, eventually, be well.
The book certainly works on that level. It doesn’t, perhaps, deliver quite the sense of reassurance I suggest above – which is one clue that there is more going on here than you might expect.
The disaster that Paul and Tanya are affected by is a worldwide loss of the ability to sleep. A small number can still sleep, but they are drawn into increasingly compulsive dreams of golden light – from which, eventually, they do not wake.
For the first day, the lack of sleep is a joke, or a mild irritant although “Brazen heads” on the TV news spread alarm as ever.
After a second night without sleep, those who can’t sleep – the “Awakened” – begin to resent and later to hate the “Sleepers”.
After several nights, the Awakened become delusional, paranoid and dangerous. After a few weeks more they can be expected to die – but Paul doesn’t have the luxury of just waiting: Tanya is an Awakened, he is a Sleeper, they have taken in an orphaned child, Zoe, and they are surrounded by wily, driven Awakened who believe that a drink of a Sleeper’s blood will cure them…
Then the book gets really weird. Paul, who narrates the story, is an etymologist. He writes not-so-popular books on word origins, while Tanya brings in the money. In a classic Wyndham apocalypse the main protagonist would be a scientist or practical sort and we’d get a rationalistic take on what happened: here it’s all about the words. Paul comes to believe that the wakefulness is related somehow to the capacity for belief, mediated by the use or not of words: and that his books, which are a graveyard of lost or nearly lost terms, have somehow highlighted things, concepts, that disappeared – or almost disappeared: perhaps they went into a dreamworld from which people have now awakened. Some of these terms are defined throughout the book and used as chapter headings: so “Admiral of the Blue”, a term for a blood-stained butcher, is the title taken on by a leader of a cult of the Awakened who wants to use Paul as a puppet prophet.
While that’s not a cause and effect explanation of events it’s as much of one as we get, and it informs both Paul’s approach and that of the crazed cult who try to hunt him down. Whether you feel the accompanying digressions into what I can only call wordiness (writing both about words and meaning and employing thick barrages of the things to illustrate themselves) advance or delay the story will depend, I think, on how wedded you are to that Platonic ideal of the apocalyptic.
For myself, I found them slightly jarring at first but then, as Barnes gets into his flow, I quickly saw that they made a strange kind of sense. In fact, the book proved to be a refreshing change, focussing on the characters’ responses to the situation they’re in (and not just in the sense of recording their bewilderment at what they have lost – though it does do that) and the changes it brought about in them, rather than on the mundane details of finding food, water and shelter.
The book also, then, works on a deeper level. Those changes to Barnes’ characters don’t just appear on a blank slate which pops up Day 1 of The Disaster: they’re actually edits to complex stories which occurred before the book started and glimpses of which he shows us (chiefly the background of Paul and Tanya). Similarly, the world that’s plunged into chaos by the loss of sleep wasn’t perfect before; large parts of it resembled what Vancouver soon becomes: so in that sense the events here are, truly, an awakening into a reality that was already here.
In the end this is a book that gives the reader a lot to think about.
It isn’t always an easy read (and there are some gruesome events in here) but it is a very rewarding one.
David blogs at Blue Book Balloon. A former physicist, he is married to a vicar and lives by a village green sometimes used to film Midsomer Murders, but has, against the odds, survived so far. David works in tax but promises he isn’t going to bring that up here.
Adrian Barnes, Nod, (Titan Books, 2016). 978-1783298338, 272 pp., paperback original.
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