Lucy and Todd

Novelist of the Nanny State: In the Approaches, by Nicola Barker

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on June 16, 2014 at 8:44 am

We are used to bearing up under an onslaught of Christianity in order to look at Giotto frescos or listen to Bach oratorios, but for some time we have been spared much Christian iconography in fiction. So the evangelical flavour of Nicola Barker’s latest creation comes as quite a surprise. What starts out as a slightly magical-realist flight of fancy turns out to be a novel about Jesus, saints, sin, eternity, angels, apostles, monks, haloes, ghosts, souls and even a heavenly light that shines (disgustingly) out of people’s hearts. Not to mention the requisite “difficult, workshy Jew”. For all her quirkiness and play, Barker is dragging around a big sack of mouldy old ideas here that made me feel less born again than bored again.

The cover, showing sheep on the edge of a cliff, reminds you of Far from the Madding Crowd, and there is an earthy Bathsheba-like figure called Carla, loved by two men and fancied by a few others. But there the resemblance ends: Hardy rebelled against Englishness, Barker exults in it. And though the title, referring to tide tables, has a nice nautical ring and the book is set near Hastings, it turns out the Channel is just “unbearably bloody there” and the cause of a much telegraphed landslip.

Set in 1984, the story follows a bunch of people as they try to reconcile themselves to some very murky shared experiences in the past. Nazism, thalidomide, a Peruvian earthquake and avalanche, car bombs, the IRA and the Brighton hotel explosion all serve as tragic relief within what is essentially a lark. There is, of course, room for the whole world in a good novel, but it is not so easy to combine the macabre, the grandiose and the cute.

Yet there is a richness here: shrunken heads; a possum-pelt coat covered with Aboriginal hieroglyphics; naughty badgers (though not enough of them); a neurotic parrot driven nuts by a mynah bird (ditto); a seemingly dead diabetic dog who digs his way out of a shallow grave; a lot of eucalyptus oil; a tricky discussion conducted between naked stranger inside a small backyard sauna; and a very funny scene in which Carla rescues Clifford, one of her admirers, from a pink and yellow birthday sweater that’s much too small for him: “It’s like an expensive lambswool python has eaten you up, whole.” Clifford becomes one of the more engaging figures in the book because he talks back to the author, protesting his minor-character status and complaining about her other books. Just like pets, Barker suggests, fictional beings can hate their owner.

There are some helpful tips on asbestos and cooking shark, and two pages of plausible solutions to hiccups. But there is way too much dialogue – dramatic events all seem to happen offstage and get relayed to us only through conversations or interminable interior monologues, killing any potential impact. Using a rolling succession of narrators, Barker takes her time, sometimes giving us a character’s every fragmentary thought: “Why is he doing this? Why would …? What’s the …? Is there something I don’t …? Is there …? Something Kimberley said, maybe? Does he … did she … does he …?” It is a very long-winded way of telling a shaggy-dog story.

And what’s with all the repetition and reiteration? Each chapter seems to be a recap on the last, offering a remarkably similar perspective on the situation. As a result, the book is twice the length it should be. Barker emerges as the novelist of the nanny state, full of monotonous chatter, false cheer and educational asides as she drags you along by the hand, continuously reminding you of things she has already told you. Look, we may not know how to cure our own hiccups (actually I do), but that doesn’t mean we’re stupid.

She is particularly mawkish about a dead child called Orla, who has many ectoplasmic and other saintly attributes. Most of Barker’s other characters are equally hard to love, but they initially possess the cheering quality of being immune to illness and injury: a near-impaling on a garden fork, a hornet sting, car accidents, even 75% burns, are all magically survived. Carla repositions her own dislocated thumb, with no ill effects. But as the denouement nears, their resilience subsides: Carla’s would-be lover Mr Huff sets off (in a huff) on a 90-mile walk that (due to excessive chafing) causes his buttocks to seal together. Mr Huff limps around for the rest of the book – much to Carla’s amusement.

As if the religiosity weren’t offputting enough, Barker eventually strays into physics and computer technology as well. One character, an ex-poet, says she prefers science because “art is undecidable”. But artistic decisions are made all the time – the quality of a work of art depends on how many of them are right.




(A version of this review appeared in the Guardian, June 14, 2014)

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