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BOOK REVIEW: Nod by Adrian Barnes

| 30 September 2016 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Nod by Adrian Barnes

Titan Books
June 2016
Paperback, $16.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell


Literary Horror


Nod. Biblically, it’s the barren nightmare land where Cain was sent when expelled from Adam’s domain, but at the same time it’s a fairy tale kingdom toward which parents urge sleepy children with gentle pressure on the backs of their warm mammalian heads.

Dawn breaks over Vancouver and no one in the world has slept the night before, or almost no one. 

A few people, perhaps one in ten thousand, can still sleep, and they’ve all shared the same golden dream. After six days of absolute sleep deprivation, psychosis will set in. After four weeks, the body will die. In the interim, panic ensues and a bizarre new world arises in which those previously on the fringes of society take the lead. Paul, a writer, continues to sleep while his partner Tanya disintegrates before his eyes, and the new world swallows the old one whole. A world called Nod.


Paul is an etymologist – his life revolves around the exploration of words and their origins, and writing books about their history and transformation.

As the end of the world begins he is working on his next book, the eponymous Nod, which focuses on words and phrases that have fallen out of common usage and understanding.

Anyway, in forgetting words, my thesis went, we abandon them. But the realities those banished words gave voice to don’t vanish: old, unmanned realities lurk eternally in dark woods, in nursery tales, police reports, and skittish memories. Like Grimm wolves.

All the old, whispered words still exist – fantastic words and phrases like ‘babies in the eyes’, ‘cavalry clover’, ‘doomrings’, ‘mavworm’ ‘Blemmye’. Thousands and thousands of them. And when we hear those words, even in the antiseptic light of the twenty-first century, we feel a slight breeze, a chill presence we can’t quite identify.

After psychosis sets in for those who cannot sleep, and Nod falls into the wrong hands, Paul’s world begins to spiral out of control in a way he never could have imagined.

‘Watch this.’ He turned and faced the angel-watchers, smiling grimly. Cupping his hands around his mouth, and without even bothering to try to sound like he meant it, he yelled, ‘Holy shit! Those aren’t angels. They’re devils!’
The effect was instantaneous. There isn’t much distance, once you’re forced to think about it, between a smile and a grimace of terror. Just two slightly different sets of facial contortions. On the street behind us, a hundred expressions shifted, and we all entered yet another hell. A man began to scream in a little girl voice while the skeleton woman dropped to her knees, still gazing upward, and began to deepen the wounds on her forearms with ragged fingernails. Within seconds, the rest had followed suit, falling to the ground and grovelling among the glass.

As there seems to be no explanation for just why the Awakened are… perpetually awake, and they draw ever closer to death; as The Dream filled with golden light and a feeling of well-being continues to call to Paul; and as he tries to find a safe place for Zoe, the mute Sleeper girl he and Tanya stumbled upon and took in, the question becomes not so much about how to survive this situation, but rather how to ride it out until the inevitable end.


Tying the novel we are reading in with Paul’s latest work, each chapter (or day) begins with a phrase that has fallen out of common usage and relates in some way to the following chapter, providing the reader with something of a “book within a book” feeling and allowing us to see the parallels between his book, Barnes’s book and, as it would turn out, Barnes’s own life following the diagnosis of brain cancer.

Nod is not a book that will give you all the answers – there are plenty of questions left wide open at the end, but then, this isn’t a book about the catalyst. Rather, this is a book about the fallout of society when everyone is going down, one way or another. It’s about hallucinations, delusions of there being a good reason for things, and the end of the world. Sometimes there is just no good reason for why these things happen, but what makes the story worth documenting or reading or witnessing is the way in which these things affect the human psyche.

The thing that surprised this reader the most was the fact that, even when certain things moved beyond the believable or logical conclusion (at least as far as the world as we know it exists), I couldn’t help but feel like I was reading a real person’s documentation of the events. As insane as everyone around him became, and as nonsensical some of his choices seemed to me, there was a certain feeling of reality to this novel that cannot be denied.

There are definitely moments in this book that are confusing, some of which never become clear. And it must be said that, while Zoe and the other children do stand apart from the rest of the crumbling society, and Paul really does need to have a connection to her in order to justify his narration of this story over any other Sleeper (besides the fact of his own Nod, of course), it felt at times as though she was just too inconvenient in the writing of this story.

Many times I had to wonder “Why is he leaving Zoe with these people when he knows they see her as a demon and would love to kill her?” but it wasn’t until close to the end of the book that I realised what was going on.

Zoe was both too convenient and too inconvenient for the story Barnes was trying to tell. He needed her there to motivate Paul and give him something to hang on to as his girlfriend loses her mind and he has nothing else tethering him to the world. He needed her to bring Paul back to the areas of the action. But a mute kid who seems to have no particularly strong feelings, good or bad, is not the best buddy in this end of the world he finds himself wading through, and had he focused on her and removed her from the situation earlier, we, the reader, wouldn’t have been privy to all of the insane events.

Perhaps, had Zoe had more in the way of thoughts or feelings, she would have been more than just a motivator for the main character, but that would have also undermined one of the themes of the novel, which is about the uncertainty of the future, and what will happen to “the kids” when we’re no longer there to look after them.

Then all we could see was writhing.
And sounds I don’t care to try to represent or transcribe: what used to be called the cat’s melody. Then the soldiers came rushing in and began firing.
And once more we weren’t heroes.
And then a gap, a hole in this manuscript.


Unfortunately, the author’s aforementioned cancer has resulted in him having to set the writing aside for a while, but I will eagerly read anything he produces. He shows such skill with the raw and chilling side of the every day and with making the out of the ordinary seem tangible, and I have no doubt it will be worth the wait.

Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

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