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Surely you jest: Nicola Barker's 'Darkmans'
Harper Perennial: 838 pp., $16.95 paper
ONE reason why Nicola Barker's novel "Darkmans" made the Man Booker short list this year but didn't win was that it isn't reader-friendly enough. That's what judge Giles Foden suggested in an article in the Guardian. The novel's sprawling length -- more than 800 pages -- and wild "zeal for language" seemed too indulgent. "[W]ith much more disciplined handling, [the novel] could have been a 'Middlemarch' for our times," Foden wrote. And then, there's a pesky secondary voice that the judges didn't seem to like, set off from the main narrative by italics.
Eh? You mean like this?
Too many tricks, it seems, for the judges, who selected Anne Enright's "The Gathering" instead.
Barker's novel is indeed steeped in trickery, as well as supernatural suggestiveness and gloom (the book's title refers to an old English term for "night"). The novel takes us to present-day Ashford in Kent, a city that's "a fantastic contradiction" of clashing identities. In a landscape dominated by suburban development and strip malls, Barker writes, "at its centre beats this tiny, perfect, medieval heart." Ashford seems to be a threshold, a portal for something.
What exactly? There are clues: Characters have visions of a cackling old man on horseback, of hovering shadows and blackbirds. Young children sing madrigals and can't explain who taught them these songs. In the hands of another writer (perhaps Clive, the other Barker), such gothic devices would briskly become a story of terrifying demonic possession.
Nicola Barker's purpose is otherwise. Her cast of characters includes hapless Beede, a hospital laundry supervisor, and his son, Kane, who deals drugs to a highly receptive clientele. "Kane takes nothing to heart," Beede complains. "He lives in the moment. If he doesn't like a situation then he walks away from it or he devours a pill to blank it out." His complaints are unfair. When his ex-wife died, Beede emotionally detached himself from his grieving son. Beede tries to make his selfish actions sound generous: "If there was one thing I could do for him, it would be to leave him to his own devices. Not to criticize. Not to control."
Clearly Kane's pharmaceutical career springs from this parental neglect. ("I manage pain," Kane bitterly protests, inadvertently commenting on his own condition. "I bring people relief when they can't find it elsewhere.") So too does his inability to keep a relationship, like the one he had with his ex-girlfriend Kelly -- although, considering that she's a profanity-spewing teen with a family tree full of thieves, they might've broken up for other reasons.
Kane finds himself irresistibly drawn to Elen, the wife of one of Beede's friends. Elen's family circumstances are utterly desperate. Her husband, Isidore (Dory), suffers from memory loss, insomnia (Beede, in fact, pinches a part of Kane's drug stash to help him sleep) and paranoia. Dory and Elen's 5-year-old son, Fleet, is an odd child. His language is extraordinarily precocious, and he's so obsessed with a certain cathedral that he builds a model out of matchsticks in the dining room with the same intensity that Richard Dreyfuss builds Devils Tower in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
Fleet speaks often of an imaginary friend named John, regaling anyone who'll listen with salty stories of John's chaotic relationship with King Edward IV. John, it turns out, is John Scogin, jester to Edward and a subject of research for Beede (he loves English history as much as his venerable namesake). During Dory's mental lapses, which send him wandering aimlessly, Fleet sometimes refers to his father as "John."
Are you getting all this?
Scogin was a savage maker of mischief in Edward's court -- sowing discord. And this points to the purpose behind the many medieval references, Scogin sightings and much else in the book that the Booker judges felt were indulgent. The nature of history is Barker's great concern. Asked to describe "Darkmans," Barker has explained on her publisher's website that it's 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."
In place of a conventional plot, she gives us metaphors of the past's pressure on the present. Kane struggles to cope with (or forget) the grim circumstances of his mother's death; Beede can't come to grips with the theft of precious antique tiles on a historical renovation project he was once involved with; language breaks down into a mishmash of tongues (when Kane's asked whether he retrieved his bag, he answers, "Yeah. My . . . uh . . . My bat . . . uh . . . my beit . . . bite . . . my boat. . . . "); Elen and Dory's home, built on a soggy hillock that had never experienced construction until the present day ("Did [the area's earliest people] have more respect for the pitfalls of nature?"), is falling apart -- and it doesn't help matters that they've hired Harve, Kelly's swindler uncle, as their contractor. Harve is a vicious person whose selfish gestures are perfectly in keeping with Scogin and his era.
In fact, the medieval and modern worldviews aren't so remote from each other. As Peta, an art forger ("not a word I've ever particularly warmed to," she says) explains, for all of our advances in technology, we are just as cruel and greedy today, defining "our power and our status -- just as they did -- through meaningless and gratuitous acts of consumption."
History, in this novel's presentation, isn't a smoothly flowing river; it's clogged, jammed, with all sorts of debris that floats up at unexpected moments. For Barker, the past is most vibrantly -- and visibly -- alive in language, in the way it seeps into modern usage.
No one better illustrates this than Kelly, Barker's star creation. Take a look at Kelly's reaction to the news that her family is (well, might be) related to a court physician who wrote about Scogin. It is a spectacular high-low outburst of family pride: "Jus' gimme a kiss, you big ape. . . . D'ya hear that, Doc? . . . We got breedin'. We got pedigree! . . . Like all those natty little mutts at Crufts. We're up there, mate. We arrived! We pulled it off! Ding-dong! . . . Ding-bloomin'-dong!"
With her burgundy hair, combat miniskirt and skinny white legs, Kelly seems like a Dickensian waif who's channeling the Plasmatics. But that's the point of Barker's story: Characters are possessed by history, not by your run-of-the-mill poltergeist. And that brings us back to the secondary narrative voice in italics. Hardly a gimmick, it provides us with a humorous, mocking commentary on the narrative proper, a reminder that the right response to any official version of history is a healthy dose of irony and amusement.
You don't say, huh?
Still, this is a heavy thesis with which to frame a novel, and the book won't be to everyone's taste, especially those who need their novels to get somewhere quickly. "Darkmans" is for readers who enjoy nimble wordplay; for those patient enough to wait as the characters' lives slowly intersect and draw closer to an ensemble encounter that, unfortunately for Harve's shiny Toyota, brings the house down. Ding-dong!
firstname.lastname@example.org Nick Owchar is deputy editor of Book Review.