End-of-the-world books are starting to look less and less like speculative fiction, and Adrian Barnes’ debut novel has more than a little anger and resignation at the way we’re treating our planet. It’s more than a sermon, however, despite the mad prophets, crazed acolytes and sequences straight out of the ‘Book Of Revelation’. Nod works brilliantly on several levels; as a nerve-shredding horror, a timely cautionary tale, and a study of a man’s life being stripped away.
Our narrator is Paul, an etymologist working on a book about words that have been lost. He lives in a small Vancouver apartment with his girlfriend Tanya, a successful PR who is as outgoing as Paul is reclusive. Paul’s life seems cosy, if a little controlled, when the world-changing event takes place.
As most of the world tries to recover from a sleepless night, it becomes clear that this is a global event. Only one person in every thousand can sleep. Paul is one of the lucky ones. Tanya isn’t. The sleepless go mad within a week, and die after a month. As the city goes insane, somebody confronts Paul with the similarities between this cataclysmic event and his work, and he finds himself at the centre of it.
Starting at Day 18 before turning the clock back, Nod moves at a breakneck pace, one day at a time. You’ll have a very difficult time putting it down. Paul is a very engaging narrator; someone who had a hard time liking people even before they went crazy, but who has a very clear need to do the right thing.
So while the brilliant and nasty mass-insomnia hook gets right under your skin (and Barnes’ description of it is utterly convincing and relatable for those of us with sleepless nights), it’s Paul’s struggle to keep things on some kind of even keel that has us engaged. The sequences of Paul and Tanya trying to make their way through the nightmarish streets of ruined Vancouver are gripping, and there are sudden, shocking moments of violence, but we found the knife-edge conversations between the couple even more nail-biting. Paul’s doubts about the length of their future together before the event make Tanya’s disintegration all the more heartbreaking as she alternates between lashing out and struggling to hold onto who she is.
As the days pass and Paul is brought into an Awakened leader’s Kurtz-like compound, it’s clear that there’s no turning back. The best-case scenario is that the crazies die before they can hurt the few remaining sleepers, including mute and eerily calm child Zoe who Paul feels compelled to protect. Barnes obviously has fun with the different factions of the Awakened, whose motives and methods operate with the unwavering commitment of the insane. They’re ridiculous, which makes them all the more terrifying.
Again though, Nod connects because of its humanity. There are horrors, and there are shocks, but Barnes manages to give us a perspective on the end of the world that feels utterly relatable. The world is hard, and people can be cruel, but that’s never the whole story.