“The House Of Sleep” by Jonathan Coe (1997)

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house-sleep“It was their final quarrel, that much was clear.”

When I was in sixth form I studied Psychology, and one of the most interesting aspects of the course was the module on sleep. It turns out that no one really knows why we sleep, what purpose it serves, what dreams are, why they happen, or what benefit sleep has. For something so ubiquitous in our lives, it seems insane to think that we have never worked out what it’s for. In this novel, we explore some of the more unusual aspects of what is already a very unusual scenario.

Ashdown is a house for students. They come and go, but the bonds they form are deep and long-lasting. In one room is the narcoleptic Sarah, who has such vivid dreams that she is convinced that they happened for real, getting her into trouble with others, not least housemate Robert, who loves Sarah deeply and will apparently stop at nothing to win her love. Elsewhere in the house is Terry requires fourteen hours of sleep a night, and there’s also Gregory, a psychology student who aspires to greatness.

Twelve years later, Ashdown is now a sleep clinic, where Dr Gregory Dudden now studies and treats people who are struggling with narcolepsy, insomnia, sleeptalking, sleepwalking and a whole host of other conditions. But he’s not the only one that has returned, and soon it seems that these four are destined to be reunited at the house where they grew up, only to find that things are not quite as they were. Chapters alternate between their student days, and a time over a decade later where they’ve all grown up and, for a time, lost contact with one another. But secrets have lain dormant for years, and soon their lives are interconnected once more, whether they want them to be or not.

I feared when the novel began that it was going to be another one of those novels where an author attempts to show off his intelligence through the well-read, political, culturally-aware student characters. You know the sort. While there is a little of this from one character in particular (two if you count a character who has an encyclopedic knowledge of film), I was pleasantly surprised to find that this wasn’t going to just be world-weary students sitting round like they’d got everything figured out. Like all good books, it treads that fine like of being very funny, as well as breaking your heart a tiny bit too, all while making you want to turn the page and devour the next chapter.

Gregory Dudden is entirely unsympathetic, a scientist with a one-track-mind and an obsession that has got out of hand and led him down a very dark path indeed. Apparently disrespected by fellow students and then later by his staff, he seems to care little about what people actually think of him and so hasn’t realised what an insufferable, unpleasant, smug creep he is. Despite dating Sarah presumably because he was attracted to her, it later transpires he mostly bothers with her so he can study her condition, as well as indulge in a sexual game that only he enjoys that involves pressing down on her eyelids. This act scars her for life and has a strong impact on her future relationships and psychology.

The other characters are more pleasant, although all flawed in their own ways. Terry has gone from being someone who needs a lot of sleep to an insomniac, and like Gregory, has an obsession that has consumed much of his life, although he at least seems to be handling it slightly better. Sarah is perhaps the least flawed character, but even she seems able to act in spite and not really think through what she’s doing. Robert is kind, but needy and can’t accept that Sarah won’t ever love him. Her relationship with him at university has a huge impact on his future and his life is changed forever by her vivid dreams.

The novel does seem to rely rather heavily on coincidence, and a small cast of characters keep overlapping one another and finding themselves magnetically drawn to others who have links to their pasts and yet, somehow, it works. It makes sense. Besides, I can’t complain about that. My own novel relies extensively on coincidence for the later plot to work. So despite this minor niggle, I really enjoyed the story. The characters feel well-rounded and when it ended I found myself wishing that there was more. The ending is somehow bittersweet, and you can’t claim happy endings for everyone, but there’s definitely a sense of hope there.

A dream, rather than a nightmare.

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“Nod” by Adrian Barnes (2015)

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Sweet dreams aren't made of this...

Sweet dreams aren’t made of this…

“It’s getting harder and harder to tell the living from the dead.”

I like sleep. I don’t nap, something that many people find odd, but come the night time, I rather like drifting off and emerging seven or eight hours later (theoretically) refreshed. On the occasions that I don’t get enough sleep, I become incredibly grouchy, which isn’t unusual among us humans. Because while science still can’t tell us exactly why we sleep, there’s no doubt that we absolutely need to. After all, terrible things happen to those who don’t sleep, as Adrian Barnes discovers in his novel, Nod.

Paul is an etymologist who shuns most of society and sits at home writing his books, his primary source of social contact being his girlfriend Tanya. One morning, after Paul has had a wonderful dream, Tanya says that she didn’t sleep at all – didn’t even feel tired. Paul spends the day working, and it’s only when Tanya returns home that it turns out that pretty much no one slept at all. Maybe one in ten thousand people the world over managed to sleep that previous night. The pair watch the news into the evening where theories are spouted and a second sleepless night for the population passes.

On the third day, society begins to crumble.

Paul is one of the rare Sleepers, and with a lack of sleep, most of the population have begun to enter a state of psychosis and within a matter of weeks, they will all be dead. Paul must survive while watching Tanya fall to pieces in front of him, and soon the old world is replaced with a new one, with Paul as an unwilling prophet at the helm. Welcome to the Land of Nod.

The book spans a mere twenty-four days – that is how quickly this end of the world scenario takes place. It’s incredibly terrifying, seeing people very quickly lose their humanity and go mad. This is the apocalypse on steroids; a faux-zombie tale on fast forward. While Paul isn’t painted as a particularly nice man, somewhat self-absorbed at first, and used to his way of doing things – he is not a man who much likes change it seems – he appears to gain humanity while everyone around him loses it. The thought of having to live as the only sane man in a world gone crazy is torture that no one deserves, and it quickly becomes unclear whether it would be better to be a Sleeper or one of the Awakened.

Despite the horror and creepiness of the story, it is absolutely beautiful. Barnes writes like his words are being woven into a patchwork quilt, and there isn’t a dropped stitch or lose thread in it. There are many reflections on what it is to be human, an emphasis on our physical bodies and how there isn’t much more to us than that, and of course what happens to a world where everything is upside down and one of the fundamentals we’ve always taken for granted has been taken away. The images are vivid and the tension and terror are palpably real.

The author’s note at the back says that Adrian Barnes was diagnosed with brain cancer six months before its release, with a 1% chance of survival. I can’t find anything online to confirm it, but it would appear to be that he has departed this world by now, unless he has been phenomenally lucky. I hope he has. He draws some parallels at the end between living with that tumour that robbed him of some of his favourite things, and living in a world without sleep. It adds another layer of unbearable sadness to the novel.

A very poignant, terrifying look at humans at their least humane.