Author: Janne Teller
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
I first picked up the Danish novel Nothing after hearing it described as “Lord of the Flies for the 21st century.” It’s a quick read, 227 pages of a larger font size and some of those pages have only a sentence or two. Still, Nothing is one of the most powerful books I’ve read in some time. It’s disturbing, gut-wrenching, and somewhat horrifying.
For readers who have not read Lord of the Flies, let’s give a quick re-cap. A group of schoolboys find themselves shipwrecked on a deserted island with no adults. Their attempts at forming their own society and making their own rules turns into a horrifying display of the dark side of human nature and the terrible things even children are capable of. Perhaps the biggest difference between Lord of the Flies and Nothing is that Nothing is not a group of children in isolation. These children are not without adult supervision. They are not struggling to survive against the elements.
The trouble begins when one male classmate, Pierre Anthon, announces to his peers, “Nothing matters,” and abruptly leaves class. He decides to spend his time sitting in a tree rather than in the classroom because he has come to the conclusion that there is no point to anything. His classmates decide they must prove to Pierre Anthon that life has meaning. They will build a pile of meaning, items of great importance to each of them, to show that life does hold meaning and purpose.
The premise seems simple, heartfelt, and meaningful. The sacrifices, however, are far from simple. The students quickly realize that no one will willingly offer up the things that mean the most to them: one offers a “favorite” tape that happens to be broken, another sacrifices his “whole” collection of books except the four he keeps in his room. They decide to take turns, each deciding what someone else must sacrifice. The ordered sacrifices quickly escalate in seriousness and the danger mounts.
Nothing is by no means a story to warm the heart nor is it a “fun” read. It is, however, an important book about how quickly the ordinary can spiral into the extraordinary and what horrors can happen right under our noses. What is particularly shocking is not only how easily the situation escalates, but the fact that these children are demanding such sacrifices of one another and then going home to their families for dinner. No one tells a parent or trusted adult. No parent or adult catches on to something strange happening. Nothing is one of those rare reads that stays with you; one that, upon finishing, you simply sit back and stare, amazed at what you’ve read.