Palimpsest  

Go Back   Palimpsest > Reviews > Book Reviews

Reply
 
Thread Tools Display Modes
Old 13th Aug 2007, 12:47   #1
MisterHobgoblin
Banned
is a Grand High Wizard of the Palimp
 
MisterHobgoblin's Avatar
 
Join Date: 6 Feb 2007
Location: Dùn Éideann, Alba
Posts: 895
Default Nicola Barker

I must begin this virgin thread by declaring, loud and proud, that I am a big Nicola Barker fan. And having just read Darkmans, I can honestly say that it is a big Nicola Barker.

Nicola Barker writes about the south east of England – small towns and suburbia.

In Darkmans, she visits Ashford in Kent – disappointingly without a single reference to the tank (try googling “Ashford Tank”). Her Ashford is a mediocre town of housing estates, modern shops and the Channel Tunnel rail link. Barker’s characters, invariably, are a little eccentric and quirky, but not usually in any dangerous way. Darkmans is no exception – the principal characters are Beede and Kane, a father and son; Dory, Elen and Fleet, a family; and Kelly, Kane’s ex-girlfriend. And there are also a dozen or so bit part players. The delight is that none of the characters is a stereotype. None is outstandingly rich or poor; outstandingly bright or dim. They are all ordinary folk, trying their best to play to their strengths. Of the principal characters, two really stood out – Fleet, the gauche five year old who builds models from matches and adores Michelle, the lame dog; and Kelly, a Vicky Pollard character who discovers religion.

Barker’s world, as well as being eccentric, also relies on coincidence. Relationships overlap, characters play different roles for different people. In Darkmans, as the novel progresses, various characters also start to develop a close relationship with the past – specifically the time of Henry VIII’s court and the building of Albi cathedral in France. This preoccupation with the past gradually takes on a more and more sinister air and starts to interfere with present day relationships. But no amount of sinister plotting can deviate Barker’s characters away from their principal purpose – exploring the mundane in quirky new ways. Thus tense moments of great drama and suspense can dissipate, for example, into worrying about Michelle creating a mess on a car seat.

The length of the novel allows some quite complex character development, and also, crucially, time for each character to spend time interacting with others. The small cast makes this a very intense and claustrophobic process. But again, Barker is masterful in dissipating tension through the use of very, very dry humour. And even though, at 840 pages, the novel is physically heavy, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. The reader is left wanting more.

The plot, whilst driving the novel inexorably forward, can feel almost incidental. It is typically tight in parts and loose to the point of frustration in others. In true Barker style, for example, the grand resolution at the end resolves only trivial details that the reader probably didn’t even notice at the time Mostly the novel remains an enigma.

Does Darkmans deserve to be Booker shortlisted? Yes.
Does it deserve to win? Perhaps.
Will it win? Almost certainly not – long, comic novels never do.

MisterHobgoblin is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 13th Aug 2007, 13:24   #2
John Self
Administrator
suffers from smallness of vision
 
John Self's Avatar
 
Join Date: 27 Jun 2003
Location: Belfast
Posts: 15,939
Default Re: Nicola Barker

Thanks for breaking our Barker duck, MrHG. I am looking forward to Darkmans - well, my reading of it does lie in the future, after all. Once I've finished it I can safely say I will then be looking back at it.

I have had, or at least did have, great hopes for Nicola Barker. I picked up one of her collections of stories when they were published by Faber - Heading Inland, I think it was - and read a couple of them. I quite liked one of them, something about a pregnancy I think. That's as much as I can remember.

Then her novel Wide Open won the IMPAC prize. I was tremendously enthusiastic about reading it, and did get through it, but only after an enormous amount of sweating, puffing and head-rolling, and only after I had more or less decided to restrict my meaning of 'reading' to looking at each word one after another, and forget about high-falutin concepts such as following it or making sense of it.

I do remember that it was filled with what I considered to be forced quirkiness, which is possibly my number one pet noire (copyright Victoria Wood) in books. One character spent much time standing and waving at the traffic for no particular reason.

But I was conscious of her considerable reputation and went on to try Five Miles from Outer Hope, a story of a gigantic teenage girl "with a clitoris the size of a Jersey Royal" who lived in a humdrum seaside resort. It was only about 180 pages long but I couldn't get through it at all.

Everything since then - Behindlings, Clear: A Transparent Novel, whatever else - has always seemed entirely fascinating but I've been twice bitten and am now shy. I did read an interview with her where she said that she wrote Clear (which is 'about' David Blaine's forty-days-fasting-in-a-glass-case-above-the-Thames) because she was maddened by the people who came along to mock Blaine and chuck burgers at him. As someone who thinks Blaine is a total fuckwit, I do think there's a risk that her world-view and mine will just never coalesce.

Nonetheless I will read Darkmans with interest (at least to begin with) and with my best attempt at an open mind. But it will definitely be the last of the Booker longlist titles I tackle, for I do fear it will grind me to a reading halt.
__________________
Reading Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate | Asylum | Book List
John Self is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 13th Aug 2007, 13:40   #3
John Self
Administrator
suffers from smallness of vision
 
John Self's Avatar
 
Join Date: 27 Jun 2003
Location: Belfast
Posts: 15,939
Default Re: Nicola Barker

I found the interview I mentioned. About Clear and Blaine she says (among other things):

Quote:
It's a book about what xenophobes the English are, about how anti-semitism is alive and well and flourishing in the UK, about how we love to laugh at and ridicule the things we don't understand. In many respects it's a savage attack on the shortcomings of the English race
There you go then. I hate David Blaine because I'm anti-semitic - he's Jewish then is he? - oh and because I "feel threatened by" him, not because he's a self-aggrandizing publicity cock with no sense of irony or his own ridiculousness.

About Darkmans she says:

Quote:
If you were to try and summarize it in a sentence then you'd probably say it was a book about how history isn't just something that happened in the past, but a juggernaut with faulty brakes which is intent on mowing you down.
__________________
Reading Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate | Asylum | Book List
John Self is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 13th Aug 2007, 16:50   #4
Oryx
Palimpsestarian
eats too much cheese
 
Join Date: 26 Nov 2004
Location: Toronto
Posts: 1,282
Default Re: Nicola Barker

Quote:
If you were to try and summarize it in a sentence then you'd probably say it was a book about how history isn't just something that happened in the past, but a juggernaut with faulty brakes which is intent on mowing you down.
Maybe I'm just thick, but what the hell does that mean?
__________________
currently reading: The Secret History, Donna Tartt
Oryx is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 13th Aug 2007, 17:01   #5
Stewart
Once known as Blixa
takes it to extremes
 
Stewart's Avatar
 
Join Date: 26 May 2005
Location: Glasgow
Posts: 6,884
Send a message via MSN to Stewart
Default Re: Nicola Barker

I doubt she knows herself.
__________________
Reading: Concrete Island, J.G. Ballard| flickr | blog | world lit | beer
Stewart is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 13th Aug 2007, 17:18   #6
amner
Administrator
is beyond help
 
amner's Avatar
 
Join Date: 10 Apr 2003
Location: Cambridge
Posts: 10,918
Default Re: Nicola Barker

We-e-e-e-ell, MrHG is best placed to answer that, having read it, but it sounds like she's extolling the virtues of fatalistic observers like Plekhanov who suggested that history could take no other course than the one it has taken, that the effect of general causes is key and the personal qualities of historical personages is essentially negligible; historical events are not affected in the least by the substitution of some persons for others, they just occur because the general trends of history are inescapable.

Essentially, the personal element is of no significance whatever in history, and everything can be reduced to the operation of general causes, to the general laws of historical progress.

Fatalistic indeed, huh?
__________________
amner is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 30th Aug 2007, 18:45   #7
Kimberley
Senior Palimpsester
could do better
 
Kimberley's Avatar
 
Join Date: 15 Aug 2006
Location: near London
Posts: 1,902
Default Re: Nicola Barker

Darkmans begins with the apparently coincidental gathering of father, son, chiropodist and chiropodist’s narcoleptic husband in a café and -- there is no other word to do it justice -- explodes from there. It’s physically a heavy book, with bright white pages (the colour of mourning in China!) and death’s face grinning, almost consolingly, on the cover. If history is a sick joke, we are asked on the cover flap, then who is telling it? Nicola Barker -- and the book designers have gone along with her in this -- seems to be playing with the entire idea of what a story is. And it’s a big, sprawling, joyous, gaudy game. Life is brutal, manipulated by the brutally amusing court jester John Scogin whose interjections are confusing until you work out that’s what they are, then really quite brilliant. Lives of the characters are presented in minute detail but with such care expended over that minutia that you see how the small relates to the whole -- this isn’t a story about a single family or even about a family representing all families, this is a story about history itself.

It seems foolish to get into a description of what actually happens, other than to say it’s a bewildering and amusing mix of the trivial and the potentially life-shattering (only the children and the insane in the story itself seem to have a glimmer of understanding) so I thought I might join the game and throw a few adjectives at my screen and see if any stick. It’s insane, absurd, (a little long-winded, a bloated take on a bloated world? The physical size of characters is as apparent as the physical size of the book; from the bulimic, bone-breaking girl to her enormous mother to the diminutive Kurd who is given his own font so that, in his own eloquent language - none of the English is rendered as elegantly as his -- he can say exactly what he thinks, and we have the privilege of overhearing), it’s clever, crazy and very, very exhausting. Nicola Barker breaks every rule there is. In particular, dialogue is rarely said when they can wonder or demand or expand or observe orvolunteer (these are all from one page! (564).

It seems sometimes that there are two ways of reading a book - going along for the ride, appreciating it, letting it go, or those who like to tease out its strands, work out what it all means. You can see something similar at an art gallery. Who are we to say that the person who stands and gapes wordlessly is feeling any less appreciation than the critic who investigates and describes? Art is, after all, art, to be appreciated as an aesthetic more than as an intellectual pursuit. Yet in terms of books like this, I struggle to stop myself constantly trying to work out what it all means. For instance, why was the cat strangled? There is a joker in scenes like this, and we aren’t given an answer. As if to compensate, I found myself inventing meaning in odd connections -- for example, a roof tile also features in The Secret River. The puzzle of what is actually happening makes it a far from simple read, although slowing down doesn’t make it any easier to work out. I’m quite pleased to report that I learned something -- after a year spent living with a phone number that used to belong to a chiropodist, I finally know what one is (it’s the same as a podiatrist). But I’m exhausted and I suspect Barker found Scogin attractive as a character because of a shared cruelty of imagination. They laugh together at our attempts to understand what the hell is going on, to impose meaning out of wonderful randomness. God, I hope it doesn’t win the Booker, because then I might feel obliged to read it again. But I loved it and wouldn’t be at all surprised.
Kimberley is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 30th Aug 2007, 19:00   #8
John Self
Administrator
suffers from smallness of vision
 
John Self's Avatar
 
Join Date: 27 Jun 2003
Location: Belfast
Posts: 15,939
Default Re: Nicola Barker

Quote:
Nicola Barker breaks every rule there is. In particular, dialogue is rarely said when they can wonder or demand or expand or observe orvolunteer (these are all from one page! (564).
Great minds think alike! From my blog:

Quote:
Along the way she breaks most ‘rules of good writing’ - happy with cliches, overdosing on adverbs, and no line of dialogue ever said when it can be sneered, expostulated, wondered, murmured (and those four from just one page picked at random)
Just realised in doing this that I haven't posted my blog review here. Sorry. I gave it +, simply because I couldn't decide if it was much cleverer than me or just chancing its arm.

Another point that kept bugging me was that during long scenes of dialogue, some paragraphs would be indented in the first line (as normal) and some wouldn't, but with no pattern that I could discern. Was there any reason for this, or was it just random 'wackiness' by Barker? If the latter, then I would tend to go with the second of my options above.
__________________
Reading Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate | Asylum | Book List
John Self is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 30th Aug 2007, 19:10   #9
Kimberley
Senior Palimpsester
could do better
 
Kimberley's Avatar
 
Join Date: 15 Aug 2006
Location: near London
Posts: 1,902
Default Re: Nicola Barker

JS, if I start worrying about the punctuation as well as the plot, I will seriously end up driven mad by this. I think it's meant to be random and enigmatic and am trying to be at peace with that .
Kimberley is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 7th Sep 2007, 15:55   #10
Stewart
Once known as Blixa
takes it to extremes
 
Stewart's Avatar
 
Join Date: 26 May 2005
Location: Glasgow
Posts: 6,884
Send a message via MSN to Stewart
Default Re: Nicola Barker

I've read the first chapter (so thirty pages and a bit) and I'm already lost. As I see it two guys (Kane and Beede) have been sitting in a cafe and then a guy with a horse has appeared, changed into someone else, Beede has vanished, and then some woman with a kid is in the cafe and someone's talking about chirpody. Have I got that right?
__________________
Reading: Concrete Island, J.G. Ballard| flickr | blog | world lit | beer
Stewart is offline   Reply With Quote
Reply


Currently Active Users Viewing This Thread: 1 (0 members and 1 guests)
 
Thread Tools
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is On
HTML code is Off

Forum Jump

Similar Threads
Thread Thread Starter Forum Replies Last Post
Pat Barker Bookie Book Reviews 18 19th Jun 2008 16:48
Breakfast at Habitat John Self Features 7 16th Jul 2006 20:34


All times are GMT +1. The time now is 21:15.


Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.7
Copyright ©2000 - 2017, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.