Literature’s most problematic hair-cut is not getting any easier. I awoke this morning to discover my coifs had turned into those of the famous boy-reporter and racist, Tintin. I suspect a large part of today will be taken up with investigating the possibility of hats. This dilemma is not just about vanity, although a great deal of it is about vanity. The anxiety is also due to having agreed to participate in two television programmes (one about the history of Scottish tourism, one about shortbread) and think I may appear to be Skeletor’s half-cousin.
Enough of this canities-kranke. I’ve been happily distracted by a sequence of cracking books to read. This week’s review for Scotland on Sunday was David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It’s going to be on the Booker shortlist, or I’ll have my head shaved in penitence. I also commissioned an interview by my brilliant colleague Chitra Ramaswamy with Nicola Barker: her new novel is Burley Cross Postbox Theft, and here’s what I thought of her previous magnum opus, Darkmans. But before that: a link to the weirdest, funniest thing I’ve seen for ages.
ALI Smith and Toby Litt, in the preface to New Writing 13, had some sharp things to say about the unsolicited submissions: “On the whole… [those] from women were disappointingly domestic, the opposite of risk-taking – as if too many women writers have been injected with a special drug that keeps them dulled, good, saying the right thing, aping the right shape, and melancholy at doing it.”
Muriel Gray, the chair of this year’s Orange Prize (for which only female writers are eligible) was similarly indignant: “There were lots of books we rejected – about personal female issues, the loss of a child, the break-up of a marriage, thinly veiled autobiographical things of no consequence… They are writing small personal takes on what it’s like to be a woman. They don’t seem to be dreaming big dreams.”
Well, these critics have a point: a lot of writing by women and marketed at women is mince-free mince, from the swoon of a Mills & Boon to the achy-breaky ennui of Margaret Forster and Anita Brookner, not to mention the slick product placement of pink-jacketed chick-lit. Similar things could be said of men’s writing (Tony Parsons? Jeffrey Archer?) But take heart: Nicola Barker’s new novel, Darkmans, is an ambitious, daring, delightful and compelling work. If any young British writer – male or female – is dreaming big nightmares and taking jaw-dropping risks, it’s Barker.
Darkmans is set in Ashford, the Kent town now best known as the home of the Channel Tunnel’s International Passenger Station. But in becoming a “geographical hub”, the town in Barker’s imagination is robbed of its history, sterilised in the present, and abandoned to an uncertain future. It is, in the great Scottish phrase, a “gaun-through” place.
The central character, Daniel Beede, feels this loss more than most. Described as “small, and hard, and unquestionably venerable”, Beede is a diligent local worthy turned Puritan avenger by, and against, the brash homogenisation of his hometown.
The novel introduces the reader to a remarkable cast of characters: one circle encompasses Beede’s drug-dealing son Kane, his ex-girlfriend Kelly Broad (of the infamous Broad clan) and Gaffar, a Kurdish refugee mildly besotted with Kelly and “employed” by Kane, who has a morbid fear of salads. Another circle links Beede’s chiropodist Elen and her husband, the paranoid, narcoleptic Isidore, and their eerie child-prodigy son Fleet.
Now, I’ll have to ask you to trust me. All of this, as well as dodgy builders, medieval monarchs, paraplegic dogs, match-sculptures and a man with a samurai sword protecting the woods, hangs together. It is twisted and braided with an intricacy so delicate you barely notice the links until the whole web engulfs you.
In the opening scene, you soon realise that this is a writer who refuses to let the reader sink into cosy complacency. Kane is irate that his father has turned up in a Travel Inn restaurant where he is due to meet his pharmaceutical supplier (who happens to work in the hospital where Beede manages the laundry). There is pitch-perfect staccato dialogue, a sense of brooding, static-electric tension and some casually caustic observation. From the window, Kane sees a man on horseback. Within a blink, man and horse are both still there, in the children’s play area, except it’s categorically a different man. Rational deductions can be made to explain the switch – drugs, a trick, a mistake – but throughout the novel, the precarious nature of these rational conclusions is unveiled and unravels.
One stylistic device Barker employs is interjected lines in italics. At first, these seem like stream of consciousness interruptions, where the character’s secret thoughts and subconscious anxieties suddenly bubble up. A far more frightening prospect is suggested as the book progresses. Maybe these are not inner voices but something outside, something other, that is whispering, wheedling and protesting. It is rare for a novel to manage to contain both the mundane and the supernatural, visceral violence and wild whimsy, pathos and slapstick: Barker thrives on it. Her characters are as unique and weird as un-made-up people.
Despite the suburban sprawl and the encroaching laminate flooring, Barker’s England is still an un-exorcised, gothic place. The combination of mysticism and social commentary has a fine pedigree – Iain Sinclair, Heathcote Williams, Hilary Mantel, Angela Carter and, ultimately, Dickens. This is a nation of old curiosity shop-keepers. They exemplify Faulkner’s dictum: “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past yet.” Moreover, they inextricably link that past to very specific local geographies. England, it seems, is finally getting its own magic realism: would that Scotland would catch up.
The author of eight other books, Barker has specialised in eccentric characters in overlooked locations, but Darkmans adds an epic intensity to her oeuvre. Although it is more than 800 pages long, it is fearfully gripping: I stayed up in the wee small hours to read it – perhaps unsurprisingly, since its slow-release, cumulative horrors make any sleep uneasy. Perhaps only David Lynch could do justice to a celluloid version of its surreal (and genuinely funny) humour, its gathering darkness and its beautiful, mystifying strangeness.