Nicola Barker writes quirky, dialogue based novels that are humorous, surreal and very stylized. Most of them are long. Her characters are eccentric and contrived; her situations are improbable and her plots are skeletal at best.
That's what she does. If that doesn't float your boat, you won't like The Yips and you won't like her back catalogue. Personally, I love Nicola Barker and The Yips is up there with her best works - Clear and Behindlings. It knocks the Booker shortlisted Darkmans into a cocked hat.
So. The Yips (dreadful title) promises to be a novel about golf and Luton. This is not a promising start. In truth, though it is a novel about unfulfilled potential and loneliness - with laughs.
The Yips has a large cast - perhaps larger than it feels when you add in all the supporting roles - of grotesques, freaks and fools. As much as there is a story, famous professional golfer Stuart Ransom is its centre and all other actions spin off him. He is an Alan Partridge character, caught up in his own legend, referring to himself in the third person, whilst never realising that those around him find him mediocre. The other main star is Gene, the multiple cancer survivor who juggles three jobs and has talents he daren't pursue. Then there's Esther, Stuart's ebullient manager who speaks in Jamaican patois. There's Valentine and her unusual mother. And Jen - a barmaid who just likes stirring things. Plus plenty of others, of course.
The novel is heavily referential and very clever. Although it might appear to be meandering and freeform, it is expertly controlled. Details that might look like padding are there for a reason. This can make the whole thing feel contrived - and to a large extent it is. The Yips has a faux-realistic feel whilst actually being very stage managed. But despite the wild coincidences and improbable back stories, there is a relentless internal logic. One moment the reader will be laughing at the actions of a character, the next moment it will become clear that, given the unlikely circumstances, the action is perfectly sensible. It's a deadpan, Paul Merton-esque surreal humour.
In amongst all the farce there are very real ideas at play. One of the most striking set conventional thinking on its head, portraying the burkqa as a garment of liberation. But the constant theme is one of what might have been. Missed opportunities, wrong decisions, wasted talent. There's real pathos mixed with the faint glimmer of hope as the reader sees new opportunities. If only the characters would see them too...
Nicola Barker expertly drip feeds information to create paradigm shifts - you witness a scene and only later come to understand it. And when you think you've got it, something else comes along to make you reappraise the situation further. But the moments of revelation are not always delivered quickly. For example, the significance of the opening scene, where Stuart Ransom sits in a hotel bar and meets a rather emotional chap called Noel, only starts to become apparent about half way through the novel.
Nicola Barker brings a feeling of warmth and generosity to her writing. It would have been easy to write a hatchet job on golf clubs and dreary home counties towns, but this is resisted. Despite the greatly exaggerated characters, the tacky scenes and the irrelevance of gol-oll-oll-ulf, there are home truths and the novel is actually about people like us, with our belief systems and our prejudices.
For my money, Nicola Barker is just about the brightest, edgiest writer around. This novel is a tour de force, it fizzes with energy and ideas. Hopefully it will be the one that sees her recognised finally as a heavyweight talent.