Flying in the face of the joys of concise reviewing, you'd better go and make a cup of tea and sit down comfortably because today the decks must be cleared for Darkmans by Nicola Barker.The book that rapidly compromises the circulation to your feet if it rests on your lap, places your wrists at high risk of a bout of tenosynovitis if you hold it up.
Either you delete all pre-conceptions about what a novel should be and go for total-immersion reading, expect fictional expectations to be subverted and assumptions to be challenged, or Darkmans may remain an unreadable mystery.
A huge glimpse of a very small slice of life in Ashford in Kent, a town transformed by the arrival of the Channel Tunnel and for many the beginning of the end of our life as an impenetrable island.
I had to forge ahead, often in a state of complete unknowing, but knew I was reading as truer representation of life both on and off the page as it's possible to find, admittedly with a few strange diversions, but as cinematic as fiction can be.
Real life isn't always explained in the next paragraph and neither is Darkmans, you may have to wait several chapters and this book about far more than it's possible to cover in one post, so I'll focus on it as the ultimate people-watching experience.I suspect I was helped here by the day-job which is exactly that (well, and just a bit more) and I knew that for sure when I read about Dina,
" The Dina Broad Experience, had a technical staff numbering well over a dozen (the doctor, the social worker, the neighbour, the policeman)"...she must have had a health visitor when Kelly was born.
On the surface, people we may judge as stereotypes living life out there on the margins, except to me that always feels so patronising and I suspect Nicola Barker feels the same.
Who's to say where the margins begin and end and who decides anyway?
Rounded, often funny, often sad yet ultimately warm caring people who I felt I recognised.Yes even the cowboy builder Harvey Broad with his three mobile phones kept nestling in his
"builder's buddy, a kind of construction worker's gun holster...this is a prototype, Guv. Have a guess at what kinda hide that is...Pig?! Pull the other one! That's Buffalo, mate. Straight up"
As I have been reading Darkmans the thought struck me early on that this could be a Dickens of a book.
I'm not saying Nicola Barker is the latest Charles Dickens, because actually I don't want to start some sort of 19th versus 21st century internecine writing conflagration, and though her canvas is as broad her role of players is much more limited, but I held onto one thought and it was sustained from start to finish.
Any reader who chances upon Darkmans in a hundred years time will read it much as we may read Dickens, for a fictional snapshot of a section of society living in a particular time and place under particular circumstances.
Just as we can tut and tsk over so much of Dickens and say
"My weren't things terrible then?"
"Thank goodness we no longer send children up chimneys"
" At least living conditions have improved"
I suspect anyone who reads Darkmans in a hundred years time may say very similar things
"My weren't things terrible then"
"Thank goodness we no longer have a drug problem"
"At least living conditions have improved"
But Charles Dickens often offered mitigation for some of his trickiest characters, making judgemental assumptions much more difficult and Nicola Barker does likewise. It may often be just the merest hint but the message for me was powerful; laugh with me but please don't laugh at me because I have as much right to be here as you do and there are very real reasons for me being me.
As I travelled back from London on the late evening train last week, I was kept nicely awake by a fascinating book I had been very kindly given by Ernest Hecht at Souvenir Press, The Moral Imagination by Gertrude Himmelfarb, coincidentally a very recent review of it here. It's an interesting collection of essays on the moral imagination in literature and, though it's complex territory to grasp as you plod through Reading, Newbury, Pewsey, Taunton, Tiverton and all stations west at 11pm, it started to crystallise many of my embryonic thoughts on Darkmans.
On Dickens Gertrude Himmelfarb concludes
"He brought the poor into the forefront of the culture, and thus into the forefront of the consciousness and the conscience of his own generation and of generations to come - not as an abstract class but as notable individuals."
Substitute that loaded word "poor" and add something of your own choosing because all the characters in Darkmans are rich in many other ways but the gist is the same.
It is Peta the Ashford forger who summed up the cynicism of our Darkmans times for me
"the truth is...that there is no truth. Life is just a series of coincidences, accidents and random urges which we carefully forge - for our own, sick reasons - into a convenient design. Everything is arbitary...The truth is simply an idea. a structure which we employ - in very small doses - to render life bearable."
And Elen the podiatrist who sums up the simple dilemma for many,
"I couldn't play along because I didn't know what the rules were."
For me Darkmans checks in as the ultimate latter-day social novel, reflecting like a multi-faceted crystal so many aspects of people's lives today and I suspect it's another of those love-hate books on the Booker longlist.
I'm a fully paid-up member of The Loved Every Word Club, all 838 pages, and it's more Nicola Barker for me for sure.
So is it on my shortlist?
In the immortal words of the wonderful Kelly Broad, "Ding-bloomin' - dong!" you bet it is!