Saturday, December 01, 2007

Brilliantly Comic, Hauntingly Sinister

Am finally and somewhat sadly at the end of Nicola Barker's Darkmans, which has kept me happy and occupied over the past ... how many weeks is it? I've lost track.

Despite being 838 pages long it never felt a long or arduous read, maybe because I was enjoying the joyfully meandering narration so much.

To talk about the plot of the novel is almost beside the point. (This idea that there's this "3 act arc" of Western story telling just doesn't work here.) Yes, there are story threads that run through, but they seem almost incidental, and not all are gathered neatly together at the end leaving the reader still caught in the mystery of who and how these folks in a modern Kent town become possessed (it seems) by characters from the past. When I was a kid I loved time-slip novels like Alan Garner's The Owl Service, and Phillipa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden, and always squeeze my eyes up tight to try to see a place as it was hundred of years ago, so this aspect of the novel greatly appealed to me.

The action doesn't (for the most part) move out of a tiny geographical area, the town of Ashford in Kent. When I've mentioned this to British friends over the past week or two, I've seen their eyes boggle in disbelief that anyone would want to set a novel there.

It's a nowhere sort of place, a transportation hub, serving the Eurostar service to continental Europe and torn up by roads. Whatever charm and history it had in the past has become pretty much obliterated in the interest of "development". But Ashford with its bypasses and Tesco's and substandard modern housing estates, is arguably the main character of the book, and the past comes back to haunt ... with a vengeance.

There's a relatively small human cast for a book this size, the interrelationships between those individuals are throughly explored.

Beede and Kane are a father and son with apartments in the same house while remaining essentially estranged from each other. Beede works in the hospital laundry and is fascinated by the past. Kane deals in prescription drugs, and is haunted by the attempted suicide of his mother many years before.

Then there's (let's see ... and do forgive the brackets, one tends to write in long run-on sentence with breathless asides after reading this) Kane's larger than life ex-girlfriend, Kelly Broad, (a girl of the sort we would have called, not very kindly, "a right little scrubber" in my day); Gaffar, a Kurdish refugee who comes to work for Kane and is terrified (to the point of fainting!) of salad leaves; Elen, Beede's chiropodist (who may or may not be a witch); Isadore, her husband, barely clinging to sanity at times; their son, Fleet, building a model of a cathedral from matchsticks. And several others including, the builder from hell, an art forger, and an incontinent spaniel with paralysed back legs.

Oh yes, and there's also a shadowy character from the past, a sort of lord of misrule, who appears to be playing some rather nasty practical jokes on the characters.

There's an awful lot of talk but in the sharp dialogue and in the asides of the completely garrulous narrator. (I kept thinking that it would be fun to see the novel written as a hypertext novel - it would be a fraction of its length without the detours!)

I came away from the book with more questions than answers. But I came away satisfied and I came away wanting more. (And disagreeing vehemently with Chairman of the Booker Prize committee, Howard Davies' snippy comment about how it could have been more tightly edited ... did he get what Barker was trying to do?).

I can't think of another novel that manages to be both brilliantly comic and hauntingly sinister at the same time. Darkman's also has its finger firmly on the (British) social pulse, while also being startlingly innovative in form and style.

So would I recommend it to Malaysian readers? Several other readers of this blog (Janet, Animah and Leon) have already read and enjoyed it. Definitely, if you are strong enough to lift a copy and can embrace exuberant messiness!

Should it have won the Booker? I wouldn't have been at all unhappy if it had. (Though I still think Animal's People and Mr. Pip will be more popular choices with a more general readership.)

Links to other reviews:

Matt Thorne in the Independent
Alex Clark in the Observer
Suart Kelly in Scotland on Sunday


Sham said...

I'll let you know soonest! Am shaping my biceps by just lifting it around :)

Eliza said...

Sharon, will get the book for next year's reading list now. I was in Ashford, Kent, in a boarding school, for two whole years. At that point, the "chunnel" was being built (amidst a lot of arguments and protests, for and against), so Ashford was still a very much laid back town. There were enough mom and pop stores at that time to compete with the high street chains (WHSmith and the like) for that village flavour, though Ashford did not have any special charm that other small English towns had. I enjoyed (mostly) my time there, though. Brings back memories, this post!

Greenbottle said...

ai yai... i too was in ashford for over a year just before the chunnel thing...well actually stayed at an even smaller place nearby -wye- and went to ashford most nights moonlighting as a bingo club doorman instead of doing my work for my Msc.

probably will pick this up one day just because it was set in ashford -

bibliobibuli said...

how really odd that both of you should know ashford so well ...

greenbottle - trying to imagine you as a bingo club doorman ...

Greenbottle said...

bingo addicts were basically harmless and sad old people so even for me it was really trouble at all..some ladies touched my hand or even head sometimes for good luck may be but never gave any tips even if they won anything.

some of them looked really frail and about to keel over any day and i was hoping for some nice old ladies to put my name in their will but never got any surprise visits from solicitors or such like. got to wear nice uniform though.

the money saved was just enough for me to visit the louvre and watched peter gabriel's concert at earls's court with youssou n'dour as opening act (the guy who sang seven second with neneh cherry if you recall) .

bibliobibuli said...

that's nice material to use for your novel!

love youssou n'dour and have some of his albums

GUO SHAO-HUA said...

and now we're solid ... solid as a rock ... thats what this love is ... the thrill is still h-h-h-h-h-h-h-hot ...

-- Ashford & Simpson