August 23, 2007
Nicola Barker: Darkmans
So here it is, the Booker biggie. Much has been written about Darkmans, mainly for its 838-page length, and my concern was for that as well as for Barker’s previous form. My dislike of random ‘quirkiness’ in fiction is so intense as to practically constitute an allergy, and my previous encounters with Barker’s books – the prize-winning Wide Open and Five Miles from Outer Hope – had been poisoned by whimsy. Indeed the latter, at about 160 pages, I didn’t even manage to finish, so what hope for this epic?
There is unquestionably quirkiness here (“‘So let me get this straight,’ Dory finally murmured, ‘I have a disabled dog living in my home which I am both watering and feeding. It travels around on a small cart, and apparently it belongs to no one’”), but somehow Barker gets away with it. Maybe all it required was an open mind, because by halfway through the book I found myself unable to dislike a book which starts one section like this:
And although it’s very long, Darkmans feels like a much lighter thing, probably because Barker herself is not taking it too seriously. 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) – and yet, again, somehow she pulls it off. Similarly with the odd presentation: bright white pages, a sans serif typeface, and paragraphs sometimes indented and sometimes not, with no pattern that I could see.
The humour and charm is cumulative, so it’s a risky business to take an extract and show it out of context, but this is the sort of thing you get, when a chiropodist character is introduced:
Elen liked the clean (very much – of course she did – she had to), but she absolutely loved the dirty: the malformation, the bump, the crust, the fungus. To Elen a foot was like a city, an infection was the bad within, and she was its ombudsman; making arrangements, sorting out problems, instituting rules, offering warnings.
On a good day she was a Superman or Wonderwoman, doggedly fighting foot-crime and the causes of foot-crime (usually, when all was said and done, the ill-fitting shoe… Okay, so it was hardly The Riddler, or The Penguin, but in a serious head-to-head between a violent encounter with either one of these two comic-book baddies and an eight-hour, minimum-wage shift behind the bar of a ‘happening’ Ashford night-spot with a corn the size of a quail’s egg throbbing away under the strappy section of your brand-new, knock-off Manolo Blahniks… Well… it’d be a pretty close call).
Elen is one of the central characters in Darkmans, along with her husband Dory (who may or may not be German) and son Fleet, either of whom may be channelling a spirit from the 16th century. Mixing it up with them are father and son Kane and Beede, a salad-fearing Kurd, and the various Broads, who were my favourite characters in the book, including Keith Talent-like builder Harvey, and Kelly, who likes her humour nice and vulgar (the punchline I’m thinking of is, “Good Lord! So that’s where Brian’s been parking the Audi!” and you’ll have to read the book to find the rest of it). My main regret was that Harvey Broad disappears for most of the book after his first appearance, only to reappear briefly at the end. But there’s a lot of that in Darkmans, not just with people but with scenes too (the dinner party, the encounter between Elen and Charles Bartlett) which are among the most promising but seem to lead up a cul de sac.
Darkmans is a loose, baggy book, and seems shorter than its huge page count. As to what it all means, other than the ever-present notion that history is ever-present, and the matters discussed directly by the characters including personal relationships, family, and bizarrely detailed explanatory speeches which would earn Dan Brown a black mark (and no exchange of dialogue in the book goes on for fewer than about ten pages), I haven’t a clue. But it doesn’t really matter, as Darkmans has a style and aplomb all its own, and is the most bizarrely charming book on the Booker Prize longlist by some way.