I must begin this virgin thread by declaring, loud and proud, that I am a big Nicola Barker fan. And having just read Darkmans, I can honestly say that it is a big Nicola Barker.
Nicola Barker writes about the south east of England - small towns and suburbia. In Darkmans, she visits Ashford in Kent - disappointingly without a single reference to the tank (try googling "Ashford Tank"). Her Ashford is a mediocre town of housing estates, modern shops and the Channel Tunnel rail link. Barker's characters, invariably, are a little eccentric and quirky, but not usually in any dangerous way. Darkmans is no exception - the principal characters are Beede and Kane, a father and son; Dory, Elen and Fleet, a family; and Kelly, Kane's ex-girlfriend. And there are also a dozen or so bit part players. The delight is that none of the characters is a stereotype. None is outstandingly rich or poor; outstandingly bright or dim. They are all ordinary folk, trying their best to play to their strengths. Of the principal characters, two really stood out - Fleet, the gauche five year old who builds models from matches and adores Michelle, the lame dog; and Kelly, a Vicky Pollard character who discovers religion.
Barker's world, as well as being eccentric, also relies on coincidence. Relationships overlap, characters play different roles for different people. In Darkmans, as the novel progresses, various characters also start to develop a close relationship with the past - specifically the time of Henry VIII's court and the building of Albi cathedral in France. This preoccupation with the past gradually takes on a more and more sinister air and starts to interfere with present day relationships. But no amount of sinister plotting can deviate Barker's characters away from their principal purpose - exploring the mundane in quirky new ways. Thus tense moments of great drama and suspense can dissipate, for example, into worrying about Michelle creating a mess on a car seat.
The length of the novel allows some quite complex character development, and also, crucially, time for each character to spend time interacting with others. The small cast makes this a very intense and claustrophobic process. But again, Barker is masterful in dissipating tension through the use of very, very dry humour. And even though, at 840 pages, the novel is physically heavy, it doesn't outstay its welcome. The reader is left wanting more.
The plot, whilst driving the novel inexorably forward, can feel almost incidental. It is typically tight in parts and loose to the point of frustration in others. In true Barker style, for example, the grand resolution at the end resolves only trivial details that the reader probably didn't even notice at the time Mostly the novel remains an enigma.
Does Darkmans deserve to be Booker shortlisted? Yes.
Does it deserve to win? Perhaps.
Will it win? Almost certainly not - long, comic novels never do.