Nicola Barker: Darkmans
“If history is a sick joke”, the inside cover of Nicola Barker’s Darkmans says, “then who exactly might be telling it, and why?” It goes on to ask if it’s John Scogin, a 15th Century court jester. Given that the book is set in contemporary Ashford, Kent, then you’d be hard pressed to accept such nonsense. Yet, substitute history for Darkmans in that question and you know who is responsible. But after 838 pages, why?
You’d think, by looking at its cover, that Nicola Barker’s Booker shortlisted novel was some sort of gothic tale: the skeletal figure, the bold text, the door hinges. What it is, however, is a light romp jumping between a cast of quirky characters as they go about their business and slowly become obsessed with history – and history is something sorely lacking in sterile Ashford. Unfortunately, while I don’t mind a quirky text, I don’t like quirky characters all that much. Ergo I didn’t find much joy in Darkmans.
Of the cast, there’s Daniel Beede and his drug-dealing son, Kane. Kane employs Gaffar, a Kurd with an irrational fear of salad. Then there’s Kelly Broad, a girl with a broken leg who is Kane’s ex-girlfriend for whom Gaffar has the hots. Back to Beede, and there’s Elen, his chiropodist and her husband, Isidore (or Dory, for short) who is German – or isn’t. Together they have a son, Fleet, a child prodigy and a spooky little brat. And in the background, haunting the text, is the notion that John Scogin may just be the architect of all the strange happenings intruding upon their lives.
People come and go, the narrative leads off in one direction before fizzing out and being (sometimes) resumed at a later point. There are ambiguous interjections in paragraphs – mostly just monosyllabic grunts and the whole prose is weighed down by a knowing overuse of cliché, adverbs, and speech tags:
“Did you get rid of it?” he asked.
She smiled, her eyes shining.
Kane rubbed at his own eyes. He felt a little stupid. He steadied himself.
“Beede’s had that verruca since I was a kid,” he said slowly. “It was pretty bad.”
“I believe it was very painful,” she said, still smiling (as if the memory of Beede’s pain was somehow delightful to her).
He coldly observed the smile –
Is she mocking him?
Is she mocking me?
– then he gradually collected his thoughts together. “Yes,” he said stiffly, “I have one in almost exactly the same place, but it’s never really…”
His words petered out.
The text is certainly playful and Barker seems to be having a lot of fun here, whether it be puns or pop culture references that will date the book (very much the point, to maintain its history thread); or in the more textual experiments, such as Gaffar’s spoken Turkish presented in a different font. It’s all highly readable but I couldn’t find myself breaking the shell of Darkmans to engage with what was going on – I never took an interest in the characters, never felt part of the action. While I allowed myself to be carried along to the end, I was bored by the greater percentage of the book which showcased Barker’s fondness for whimsy. There were occasions when the dialogue would head off in a direction that may give clues to the text itself, but as to what those clues reveal, I’m lost for ideas. My suspicion was that barker had taken historical events and rewritten them as mundane everyday happenings. But I’ll never truly know.
Being shortlisted for the Booker means that Darkmans will see more readers than may have been expected. I don’t think it’s a winner – it doesn’t make sense to award a book that doesn’t make sense. (Or perhaps, by that logic, it does.) Darkmans is a cryptic text where the meat behind it has been removed leaving over eight hundred pages of not much. With repeated readings perhaps it may give up its secrets but with frequently talk about history repeating itself and the weight of history pushing down on the modern day, I’m happy to relieve the pressure by not reading Darkmans again.
October 3, 2007