“Early Riser” by Jasper Fforde (2018)

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“Mrs Tiffen could play the bouzouki.”

Jasper Fforde has – even by his own admission – been undergoing a creative hiatus these last few years. He doesn’t know what caused it anymore than his readers do, but suffice to say the literary landscape has been missing its shine peculiar to the man for the duration. As one of the finest and funniest writers we have, it was a huge relief that this month finally saw the release of his newest book, almost two years after it was originally announced.

Fforde takes us to a new world of his imagination in Early Riser as we enter a planet in the grip of an Ice Age, where the ice sheets reach down to the Midlands, and humans hibernate every winter. As the temperatures drop and blizzards set in, only a few people stay awake for the Winter to protect those that sleep. Charlie Worthing is a new recruit undergoing his first season with the Winter Consuls and he doesn’t really know what to expect. Things start bad enough when the nightwalker he’s been tasked with taking care of is lost and rumours begin to circulate about a viral dream that’s causing people to go mad. Things get worse when he accidentally falls asleep for four weeks and is now trapped in Sector Twelve, the most dangerous and insanity-inducing area of Wales known to mankind.

Caught now between two factions – one led by the pleasant and charming Aurora, and the other by the violent and permanently angry Toccata – Charlie finds that he’s now beginning to experience the viral dream too, and what’s more it seems to be bleeding into reality. As the waking world begins to merge with his dreams, he learns the hard way that it takes more to survive the Winter than a thick coat and a steady supply of Tunnock’s Teacakes.

From the opening paragraph, you can tell it’s Fforde. His style is so unique and warm, and his imagination is somewhere I could spend hours swimming around in. I long to be able to write as well as this. His world building is unmatched in its scope. This is now the fifth world he’s created for us, and it lacks nothing. The single difficulty is that because the narrators assume that you live in the world too, many aspects don’t get fully explained, so you have to pick it up as you go along and hope for the best. Fforde layers in so many jokes and ideas that it’s hard work to read him, but gets easier as time goes on and is absolutely always worth it. Here, for example, we not only have hibernating humans but also nuns who pledge their oath to be permanently pregnant to help population growth, mythical creatures that live out in the snow but are never witnessed, an economy based on Snickers bars and the owing of favours, and Carmen Miranda. As with Shades of Grey, his humans are not quite as we are, but this is never really shown explictly – you just suddenly realise that they’ve all grown thick coats of winter fur, some of them in intricate tortoiseshell or spotted patterns.

Fforde also plays with concepts in our world and turns them upside down. Here, weight loss diets don’t exist, as it’s better for you to enter hibernation fat and well fed. The Ice Age means that people are pumping masses of carbon dioxide into the air in an attempt to heat up the world. His fondness for Wales shines through too, as that’s where the novel is entirely set, and it’s only really halfway through when you meet some English villains that you learn all the characters up to that point are, and have been speaking, Welsh.

Despite the surrealism, the core is still utterly believable. It depicts a world that has evolved much like ours – Shakespeare, the Chuckle Brothers and Brief Encounter all still exist – but with the added issue of the encroaching ice sheets. As ever, the characters are real and complex, somehow attractive and very, very human. When it comes down to it, all of his books are pretty much about normal people trying to cope in worlds that seem bizarre to use but completely normal to them. No one has been this sharp on the topic since Douglas Adams, and I think it’ll be many years before we find anyone who can do it this well again.

We’re so glad to have you back, Jasper. Now about those sequels…

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“After Dark” by Haruki Murakami (2004)

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“Eyes mark the shape of the city.”

It seems that eventually, if you read enough, you will brush up against Haruki Murakami. A few years ago I read Kafka on the Shore and was simultaneously smitten and bemused by it. He is probably Japan’s most famous literary export (Kazuo Ishiguro wrote his books in English) and his books are charmingly bizarre.

After Dark takes place over seven hours, from midnight to 7 am, in Tokyo. Mari Asai is sitting in a restaurant at midnight, reading a heavy book, when she is joined by a skinny trombonist who claims to know her sister. The sister, Eri, however, is asleep, and has been for two months. In another part of the city, a late-working businessman has attacked a Chinese prostitute and stolen everything she owns.

As the night draws on, these characters become linked and their stories wrap around one another in the black of the Japanese night. But not everything is as it seems. There’s a Man with No Face, staring at something unrevealed. An unplugged television is starting to show signs of life. And mirrors are are holding onto their reflections longer than they should. Is it all a trick of the night, or is something strange going on?

In parts, the book almost feels like it’s written in blank verse, having an almost lyrical quality to several parts. The narrator is “pure point of view”, able to watch, from any angle, but not interfere. It’s a short book, but the characters have enormous depth and are oddly likeable and, weirdly, relatable, despite the strangeness going on around them. The short time frame and the fact it all takes place at a time when most of the world is meant to be asleep gives it a haunting, magical quality. And, of course, as in everything Murakami does, there are cats.

There’s not much in the way of plot, and while things happen, little is resolved because daylight invades at the end of the novel and a new day starts. We are not allowed to know what will happen to any of the people here, but we can count ourselves lucky to have been able to spend a little time with them. Murakami’s style seems to cleverly mimic the way that time seems malleable in the early hours of the morning, and how the whole time is really one big liminal space. Everything feels a bit off, which means that you accept the more magical aspects of the story without hesitation. If a mirror is going to stop working properly, it would be at three in the morning.

Haunting and very beautiful, a shot of magic that will linger on like a half-forgotten dream long after you’ve woken up.

“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.

“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.