Monað modes lust mæla gehƿylce ferð to feran.

Darkmans  - Nicola Barker A strange book, which can be funny, moving, thought-provoking – as well as frustrating. But then it is set in Ashford, which is all of those things and less. The plot is hard to summarise, although as a reader you'll probably be more preoccupied with unpicking the Byzantine web of connections which links the cast. The nearest thing to a central character is Kane, a layabout and amiable drug-dealer; he has a strained relationship with his father Beede, who works at the local hospital. Both of them are infatuated with a chiropodist called Elen, whose half-German husband Dory suffers from schizophrenic episodes during which he appears to be possessed by the spirit of a medieval jester. Their son, Fleet, has preternatural awareness and is building a fourteenth-century French cathedral out of matchsticks. A Kurdish immigrant, Gaffar, observes them all with sardonic weariness, and chats up Kelly, a sympathetic chavette who breaks her leg and finds God. I could go on, but my eyes are watering as it is.

As an ensemble piece, it starts off something like a prose version of Magnolia. But there is more going on here, and considerably more weirdness than a froggy April shower. ‘Darkmans’ is archaic thieves' slang for ‘night’; but Barker (who never explains this) takes it as a name for the medieval jester mentioned above, whose shadowy presence lurks behind all the other characters, occasionally breaking through with sinister results. Something is being said, it seems, about how close to us our history is, lying unrecognised beneath the surface of the present. Ashford, in this context, makes the ideal setting.

A lot has been said about Barker's use of language. Here too, the past is forever barging its way into the present, albeit in a way which I found somewhat trivial. Characters with trouble keeping their grip on reality are likely to slip accidentally into German, Latin or Middle French. The reminder that our language is a collection of fossils is crucial, but the tricks Barker uses to make the point have been pulled off more effectively by other writers (most obviously Joyce).

In other ways, too, I found the language disappointing, even slapdash. It's exhilarating to see such a crazy jumble of characters and plot points; but when the same principles are applied to sentences it too often comes over as just a poorly-controlled prose style. Her love of parenthetical asides can make her appealingly conversational, but after too many you end up with sentences that seem to be made of elbows.

And Beede (who hadn't, quite frankly, really considered all of these lesser implications – Mid-Kent Water plc didn't run itself, after all) found himself involved (didn't he owe the condemned properties that much, at least?) in a crazy miasma of high-level negotiations, conservation plans, archaeological investigations and restoration schemes, in a last-ditch attempt to rectify the environmental devastation which (let's face it) he himself had partially engendered.

A few sentences like this are quite fun; but a dozen per page is sometimes an effort. There are brackets here by the hundred. I also became a little frustrated by the way no one ever ‘says’ anything in this book. On one double page opened at random, I find:

‘So you think I could do better?’ he smiled…
‘Why not?’ she demanded…
‘And it ain't only me as thinks so, neither,’ she continued…
poor old mum?!’ he grinned.
‘He's been schmoozing my
mum, Kane,’ Kelly exclaimed…
‘Well he can't fancy her that much,’ she sniffed…
‘The ignorant fuck,’ she scowled.
‘He didn't shag her,’ Kane repeated.
‘God, no,’ Kane muttered…
‘Anyway,’ Kane maintained…
‘Her tits
are amazing,’ Kane added…

You get the idea (though in fairness, there are a couple of ‘said’s in there too). Also needlessly erratic is the paragraph spacing, which appears to be entirely random – sometimes we get a whole new section halfway through a conversation.

None of this disguises the fact that when the writing is held under control, Barker is awesomely impressive. Her treatment of characters' internal dialogue, for one thing, can achieve strange new effects. She often skips to a new line to give us the unedited thoughts of whoever she is describing, which form a colloquial counterpoint to the action.

He glanced down –


The tip of his spliff had dropped off into his lap. And there was still a small –


– ember…
He cuffed it from his jeans and down on to the floor. He checked the fabric – no hole, but a tiny, brown…


He took a final, deep drag –


– then tried to push the damp dog-end into the ashtray, but the ashtray, it seemed, was already full to capacity.

At times like this the text reminded me of a comic strip, in the way such ‘thought bubbles’ are pulled out of the narrative. It takes some getting used to, but she convinces you it's an effective tool. Part of the reason it seems so effective is that her characters are the book's greatest draw and its biggest reward. This becomes clear once you realise the plot's inexplicable but that you still loved the novel. Some of the throwaway jokes are excellent (Beede has ‘a stare which could make an owl crave Optrex’), and one scene detailing a horrendous middle-class dinner party is a comic tour-de-force.

Like the mysterious Darkmans, Barker believes that humour can ‘often be a direct route to power’, and there is something serious at work behind the jokes – even if the ending leaves you unsure how it all technically came about. What you are likely to be more sure about is what an unusual and enjoyable way she has of asking the central question: if we can't understand our history, then how can we understand each other? Because despite the one-liners, the image that stayed with me was that of Kane and his father walking away from each other after another halting argument:

They both turned. They both paused. They both took one measured step forward, then another; like a pair of old adversaries engaging in a duel, but without weapons, or seconds, or anybody to call.

Currently reading

Emir Abd El-Kader: Hero and Saint of Islam
Gustavo Polit, Eric Geoffroy, Ahmed Bouyerdene
Progress: 70 %