Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

"Darkmans" by Nicola Barker (Fourth Estate, 2007)

838 pages. On the cover it says "we're lucky to be alive at the same time as her" (Ali Smith). The inner cover has "[Barker] gives a baroque twist to high realism, throwing harsh light on the strangeness of ordinary lives" (TLS), which is closer to my impression. To get an idea of the style, here are some extracts

Now that was odd. Kane frowned. Beede uncertain? Furtive? To actively break his gaze in that way?


Unheard of! Beede was the original architect of the unflinching stare. Beede's stare was so steady he could make an owl crave Optrex. Beede could happily unrapt a raptor. And he'd done some pretty nifty ground-work over the years in the Guilt Trip arena (trip? How about a grueling two-month sabbatical in the parched, ancient Persian city of Firuzabad? And he'd do your packing. And he'd book your hotel. And it'd be miles from the airport. And there'd be no fucking air conditioning). Beede was the hair shirt in human form. (p.18)

He didn't want to push or to provoke or to challenge; because - bottom line - it was none of his damn business. And - more to the point - if he did (push, provoke, challenge, etc), where would it actually lead?


What could be gained? Dory was (after all) just a man; a human being, battling - against horrendous odds - merely to function; to hold down a job; to raise a family; just to ... to ...

Oh God, here it comes -

... to be.

He was a simple man. A good man. He had integrity and dignity. He had pride -

A little too much occasionally ... (p.51)

The foot was hardly the most glamorous of the appendages ('your dogs', your plates', 'your hoofs'). No one really gave a damn about it (although - fair's fair - the acupuncturists had done a certain amount for the cause, and the reflexologists had sexed things up a little, but in Elen's view, the short-fall still fell … well, pretty damn short). (p.161)

- he glanced down, in his mind's eye -

Good Lord!

- aside a pony, watching them pass with a sense of casual impatience. He was hungry. Part of him was idly wondering if he might steal one -

Steal a goose?

- but geese - he knew, from hard experience -


- were far too noisy for casual abduction.
He opened his eyes again


He inspected his scholarly hands -


- which were anxiously fingering the polythene bag - (p.365)

'What are you digging for? he asked.
Kane stopped digging.
'I'm digging to make a hole,' he explained patiently.
'What for?'
'Not four,' Kane demurred, shaking his head (a shower of bugs and dirt cascading around him)
'Not four. I'm not digging four holes. I'm only digging one. One hole will suffice. But it must be a whole hole and not just a measly half ...' (p.781)

There are passages of real-time stream-of-consciousness, the asides sometimes the narrator's rather than the character's. Some of the characters because of drugs or mental health are distinctly non-linear at the best of times, but I was rarely confused - on a small-scale it can appear scatty but from a distance it's tight. It took me more pages than usual to get to know the characters, though in the end I guess one knows them more thoroughly, from inside and out, aware of their idle thoughts and grand conceptions.

The plot? Beede meets his son Kane in a cafe. He sees a horse and rider just outside the window. His chiropodist, Elen, comes in. He sees the horses again, maybe with a different man. He knows the man - it's Isidore (Dory), husband of Elen, father of Fleet (autistic?). Beede decides to help Dory return the horse. They see Dory's car, abandoned. Kelly Broad (once dumped by Kane) breaks a leg while delivering a packet to Beede. Gaffer (who provides comic relief throughout) helps her. What's in the packet? That's one of the
little mysteries that keep us turning the pages. Did Winifred kill Paul? What caused Elen's bruises? Who is Fleet's biological father? Why is Beede in debt? Does Kelly find God? Is she related to a historically famous royal physician? Elen meets Charles Bartlett who had a gifted daughter Eva, who died. But she didn't. We're introduced to several interlocking families (I started drawing family trees). Dory and Elen are having their house mended by Harvey Broad, which brings builders into the plot. Elen has clients, and Kane has drugs clients. Coincidences abound. They all end up in a traffic jam.

There's explicit interest with language - the flowering of English but also linguistics

'What is this?' he asked, putting his hand to his lips. 'What is this in my mouth? What are these strange shapes?'
'Just words,' she answered.
'Words? Are we speaking English?'

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