Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun

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Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun

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Category: Dystopian Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A poetically beautiful story of a world disintegrating. If you know what it’s like not to sleep, this could be your worst nightmare. Utterly superb.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: October 2015
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099587347

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Do you ever have those nights when you hear every chime of the clock, when you watch the shadows move round the room painfully slowly as the moon crosses the sky? Thankfully I have very few of those. I know that the thing most likely to keep you awake is the worrying about the fact that you're not asleep, and I have distraction mechanisms for when I need them.

I can sleep just about anywhere and through most kinds of noise. I find the engine noise and motion and passing lights of a motor car journey in the dark as soporific as a lullaby. I have had strangers wake me to up to tell me this train isn't going any further.

It is hard, therefore, for me to understand an inability to sleep.

But because I generally sleep well and long, I am dependent upon it. Tiredness is not a state that I experience a great deal. I go from "fine" straight into sleep deprivation: that inability to focus enough to string a sentence together – words get slurred, syntax mangled, gobbledygook spoken as though it has some real significance. I have heard myself doing all these things. I get "twitchy". I cannot sit still, a feeling of all the tiny internal muscles repeatedly cramping and relaxing, needing to be moved. And I get angry. I will snap at the slightest thing. Irrational.

It is very easy, therefore, for me to understand what an epidemic of sleeplessness might do to a population.

Such an epidemic is occurring in Calhoun's debut novel. Something unexplained has happened, or is happening, and people have stopped sleeping. Most people. There are some, the sleepers, who still sleep, still dream, and they provoke unassuageable anger in the sufferers condemned to walk through the days and the nights – dead-tired and sleepless. Going slowly insane.

The book starts almost as a collection of short stories as we watch how the scenario is playing out for a few people.

Biggs is a sleeper. But his cherished wife Carolyn – insomniac before all the madness started – is afflicted. He is not convinced by the reality of the disease, thinking, hoping, it might be psychosomatic in many people, and praying that Carolyn is one of those. He searches for a placebo that might enable him to story-tell her into believing she's ok, so that she will be. It doesn't work.

Chase is a college kid, home early from the holidays – shacked up with an old school friend and stealing drugs from pharmacies. He doesn't know about the epidemic yet. He's still sleeping and he doesn't know anyone who isn't – so what's his mate going on about, why are they stock-piling sleeping pills of all things? But so long as they're in the crime together, he has a pressing need for Viagra – or anything else that might sort out the problem that lost him the love of his life, Felicia.

Lila on the other hand, is just a kid. But she knows what's happening… it's trending on the internet… and she watches her parents.

We follow these three characters out into a world that has descended frighteningly quickly into chaos. It's only towards the end that Calhoun provides a kind of a theory as to why it would happen so quickly… but if you've been anywhere near sleep deprivation (and we know it's an officially listed torture technique given what it does to the human man)… then it is very easy to fathom.

Naturally the stories eventually converge and weave together into a cohesive plot.

Calhoun writes with the confidence needed to ignore the diktat that stories should have a beginning, a middle and an end. He produces a novel with the structure of a short story – diving into the middle of the situation, taking us through the development of it, the impacts it has on his chosen protagonists, and closing down only some of the narrative, but then leaving… It takes a very specific kind of craftsmanship to do that without leaving the reader dissatisfied – and Calhoun has it.

In the spirit of all speculative fiction, theories come and go about the cause of the epidemic. None of them are pinned down definitively. Maybe the 'why' doesn't matter, it is, and the fact of it is hard enough to deal with for now.

Options for "cures" are sought… and maybe found, but maybe not…everything comes at a price.

Calhoun doesn't feel the need to tie everything up in neat packages and the story is the stronger for it.

Horribly, terribly compelling says the Sunday Times endorsement on the cover. Believe it. This is a short novel, but a spell-binding one. It isn't shocking in a gory way – reading it, I worried about the film adaptation that would turn the sleepless into zombies, completely missing the subtlety of Calhoun's imagining. Horrible, rather than horrific. It is easy to pick a character and know that it could be you. Pick another, and maybe, that too.

We like to give you video links to support our reviews, and in this case the link is to a trailer for the book, and I'd just ask that you read the book first, because I think the trailer does it no favours.

For a story so sharply observed, it is also fabulously observed and beautifully written. His description of a lullaby The words she sang were not English. He was not even sure they were words. They were soft sounds, smooth vowels, candle-melt. Eroded stone. The consonants were like footsteps in the snow, hands tunnelling in wet sand. Pure poetry.

A contender for my book-of-the-year.

Part of the subtext for this book, which I have deliberately allowed readers to find for themselves is around what it means to be human… for a completely different but equally gripping take on what 'else' it takes to be human' I'd recommend Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick.

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