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.


  1. Hey John Self, I’m a third of the way through this one so haven’t read your review in detail (I’m paranoid about spoilers) but I gather that you liked it, so hurray. I’m thoroughly enjoying it so far.

    Great job on the reading effort! I can complain that they’re not all available in Australia, but even if they were I don’t think I’d have read 12 by now.

  2. “and is the most bizarrely charming book on the Booker Prize longlist by some way.”

    This is a very provocative sentance, John. What does it mean?

  3. I suppose, Oryx, it means I liked it but I am not sure why I liked it … or more accurately that it works against most things I normally like in books – order, direct intelligence, carefully composed sentences – so it must have had some intangible literary charisma that I cannot quite identify. Or perhaps it just means that it’s fun!

  4. So pleased to read that Darkmans and you got along so well. I know that feel when you cant quite say why you like a book but you do. I feel like that about dried mangoes!

    After being so wary of the book for so long its a relief, I hope I have the same reaction.

    And you’ve finished your Bookerthon. In such good time. Well done! Will you be posting or commenting to say what your shortlist and winner would be?

    I think I’ll stick around and see what you have to say about other things you read too.

  5. I’d love that, jem, please do stick around! I’ve got a few forthcoming releases to get through which I’m quite excited about, next up being Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero, so watch this space, as they say.

    If you look at the sidebar at the top right of this page, I’ve put my selections for the shortlist in bold and named my personal chosen winner as The Welsh Girl. So it almost certainly won’t win!

  6. How sad that in the US Darkmans hasn’t arrived… I’m reading ‘Wide Open’ for the second time!!1 Wonderful. And thanks for your review! Makes me more anxious…

  7. A bit late for this one, but as you know I don’t like to know much about a book before I finish. Your reviews are ones I know I can trust not to give away too much, and I looked up your blog entry because I’m currently reading Darkmans and I was wondering whether to carry on.

    Your review has convinced me that I should.


    p.s. I don’t even know if you see these blog comments when added so long after your original – it’s the first time I’ve ever commented on a blog.

  8. Thanks for the info. A friend is traveling to the UK, so I’ll take advantage of that. Just got a collection of her stories. I also read ‘Clear: a transparent novel’ and loved it!!

  9. I haven’t read Darkmans yet, may not because it is 837 pages, but I found Wide Open “bizarrely charming”. Nicola Barker is an original.

  10. Sorry to come in so late, but I only finished last night. I have so many things in my mind about this book, but one thing I want to say is that the dog is not an element of random quirkiness at all: it turns out to be a vital part of the “plot” surrounding the no doubt pointless feud between Gary Spivey and Harvey Broad. That rant of Harvey’s over his placement in the phone book: pure gold!

  11. Thanks Barry. I’m happy to be corrected on any points of Darkmans as it was the last of my Booker longlist titles and frankly I was desperate to get finished… so I almost certainly didn’t give it the full attention it deserved. I did enjoy it overall though, and there was a real sense of ungraspable significance throughout. Ungraspable to me anyway…

  12. Mm. I should know better than this. When I read a review that says “to suggest that this dazzling, complex novel has anything quite as conventional as a plot would be misleading”, I should know that it just isn’t the book for me. It just isn’t. It just can’t be. I need a plot. I read books for the plots, and that is why I read. And I do not tend to like books that mess with paragraphs and punctuation – I know that this is edgy but it always ends up feeling choppy and affected to me. In this case, choppy and affected and tedious after the first few pages. What is wrong with normal punctuation, I should like to know?

    Unfortunately, I had jury duty day before yesterday, and I was stuck with reading it because although we were waiting in a library (thank you, kindly courts), I didn’t want to get up to look for another book, because I didn’t want anyone to take my seat. So I did stuff for work until my laptop battery died, and then I worked on some work on paper, and then when I had run out of things I could do without a laptop, I read this book. Up to page 366. I didn’t like it that much. Up with normal punctuation! Hurrah for punctuation!

  13. *CLICHE ALERT!!!*

    I really enjoyed Darkmans but found it *in serious need of a good edit*. Behindlings is very good indeed.

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