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Pickle Me This

December 18, 2008

On Nicola Barker's Darkmans

I set out to read Nicola Barker’s Darkmans for fun, not for review, because it came out a year ago after all, generating its own sufficient buzz with a Booker nomination (losing out to Anne Enright’s The Gathering). And while I’m very glad I never intended a review (for a review requires more of a grasp than I can confess to here after 838 pages of much befuddlement), I really can’t leave my response here at nothing, because Darkmans is a book the likes of which I’ve never encountered before.

Dovegreyreader says it is Dickensian, explaining, “Any reader who chances upon Darkmans in a hundred years time will read it much as we may read Dickens, for a fictional snapshot of a section of society living in a particular time and place under particular circumstances.”And indeed Darkmans is massive in that way English novels used to be (in the nineteenth century, as opposed to American novels and how they’re massive now). But its concerns are strictly modern, concerning class, mental illness, drug peddling, dodgy builders, Germans, chiropody and the Chunnel. And also modernity too– grocery stores in ancient forests, and misplaced motorways.

Of course, the novel is haunted by a five hundred year old evil jester. (Have you ever before encountered a haunted novel?) And in any book with a trickster at the helm, what is ever what it seems? Which is nothing. Plot isn’t really quite the right word to describe what’s going on, and I’d even use “romp” if it weren’t so unsinister. The reader thrown into the action without any explanation, and has no place but to follow where the writer leads. (Where the trickster leads?) To encounter birds that might not exist, duplicate cats hung with bells, an incontinent spaniel, a Kurdish asylum seeker with a mortal fear of salad, and Kelly Broad (one of those Broads, with the brother in prison, the other in a glue-sniffing coma, and don’t even start on her sister Linda). She is fabulous, in her mini-skirt and moon boots, and when she finds God, watch out. Though from my experience with Kelly Broads (I spent two years working for Social Services in the Midlands; I know of what I speak), they’re ever so much less frightening to encounter on paper, and we don’t get to do that nearly often enough.

The precocious child who builds an ancient town out of matchsticks, the man whose daughter has been decapitated in Sudan, the tree-collar clipping waitress, bereaved mother, and the enigmatic woman with the birthmark on her nose. Beede and Kane, father and son in their upstairs/downstairs flats, and how they don’t know one another, but they don’t know that at all. And of course everything is actually something quite different.

Which doesn’t take me any closer to explaining the point, or even to me getting the point, but perhaps it has intrigued you. I’m still a-wonder. Here is a book that will leave you feeling like you’ve been hit by the most marvelous train.

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