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36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliantly Comic, Hauntingly Sinister
Despite being 838 pages long Darkmans never felt a long or arduous read, maybe because I was enjoying the joyfully meandering narration so much.

To talk about the plot of the novel is almost beside the point. Yes, there are story threads that run through, but they seem almost incidental, and not all are gathered neatly together at the end leaving the reader...
Published on 30 Nov 2007 by Sharon

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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very weird
This is one very weird book. Once you've established that and come to terms with it, it's much easier to enjoy. It's written in a style which I found intensely irritating, full of irregular paragraph spacing and with an obsessive overuse of brackets, and while I came to tolerate it I certainly never grew to like it.

For the first hundred or so pages I...
Published on 30 Dec 2008 by BookWorm


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36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliantly Comic, Hauntingly Sinister, 30 Nov 2007
By 
Sharon "Sharon Bakar" (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Darkmans (Paperback)
Despite being 838 pages long Darkmans never felt a long or arduous read, maybe because I was enjoying the joyfully meandering narration so much.

To talk about the plot of the novel is almost beside the point. Yes, there are story threads that run through, but they seem almost incidental, and not all are gathered neatly together at the end leaving the reader still caught in the mystery of who and how these folks in a modern Kent town become possessed (it seems) by characters from the past. When I was a kid I loved time-slip novels like Alan Garner's The Owl Service, and Phillipa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden, and always squeeze my eyes up tight to try to see a place as it was hundred of years ago, so this aspect of the novel greatly appealed to me.

The action doesn't (for the most part) move out of a tiny geographical area, the town of Ashford in Kent. When I've mentioned this to British friends over the past week or two, I've seen their eyes boggle in disbelief that anyone would want to set a novel there.

It's a nowhere sort of place, a transportation hub, serving the Eurostar service to continental Europe and torn up by roads. Whatever charm and history it had in the past has become pretty much obliterated in the interest of "development". But Ashford with its bypasses and Tesco's and substandard modern housing estates, is arguably the main character of the book, and the past comes back to haunt ... with a vengeance.

There's a relatively small human cast for a book this size, the interrelationships between those individuals are throughly explored.

Beede and Kane are a father and son with apartments in the same house while remaining essentially estranged from each other. Beede works in the hospital laundry and is fascinated by the past. Kane deals in prescription drugs, and is haunted by the attempted suicide of his mother many years before.

Then there's (let's see ... and do forgive the brackets, one tends to write in long run-on sentence with breathless asides after reading this) Kane's larger than life ex-girlfriend, Kelly Broad, (a girl of the sort we would have called, not very kindly, "a right little scrubber" in my day); Gaffar, a Kurdish refugee who comes to work for Kane and is terrified (to the point of fainting!) of salad leaves; Elen, Beede's chiropodist (who may or may not be a witch); Isadore, her husband, barely clinging to sanity at times; their son, Fleet, building a model of a cathedral from matchsticks. And several others including, the builder from hell, an art forger, and an incontinent spaniel with paralysed back legs.

Oh yes, and there's also a shadowy character from the past, a sort of lord of misrule, who appears to be playing some rather nasty practical jokes on the characters.

There's an awful lot of talk but in the sharp dialogue and in the asides of the completely garrulous narrator. (I kept thinking that it would be fun to see the novel written as a hypertext novel - it would be a fraction of its length without the detours!)

I came away from the book with more questions than answers. But I came away satisfied and I came away wanting more. (And disagreeing vehemently with Chairman of the Booker Prize committee, Howard Davies' snippy comment about how it could have been more tightly edited ... did he get what Barker was trying to do?).

I can't think of another novel that manages to be both brilliantly comic and hauntingly sinister at the same time. Darkman's also has its finger firmly on the (British) social pulse, while also being startlingly innovative in form and style.

Should it have won the Booker? I wouldn't have been at all unhappy if it had. (Though I still think Animal's People and Mr. Pip will be more popular choices with a more general readership.)
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magnificent, 28 Sep 2008
By 
EmmaH (Dorset, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Darkmans (Paperback)
I'm not going to go into long plot explanations - others have done it already far better than I could. I just want to say that this is a magnificent novel. I've not read any Nicola Barker before, and I was just blown away by the sheer audacity and exuberance of her prose. Yes, this book is long, but within a few pages I was completely gripped, barely able to put it down as it built up an exquisite dramatic tension. Barker develops, layer by layer, scene by scene, an almost anarchic assortment of characters, throws them together and shows us the unpredictable results. It's an almost cinematic approach to novel-writing, and makes for a demanding read - you work hard to piece together the clues scattered in her narrative - but it's totally engaging and thoroughly rewarding.

Not for a long time have I come across a writer with such a playful feel for language. Her observations, too, are startlingly fresh and apt. Yes, the novel does rely heavily on coincidence, but then so did Thomas Hardy. I don't think her aim is to be 'realistic'. We're drawn into a more magical and mysterious version of the 'real' world, and leave the novel both entranced and enriched by the experience.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful coherence and sinister grace: it should have won the Booker, 2 Oct 2009
By 
Eileen Shaw "Kokoschka's_cat" (Leeds, England) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Darkmans (Paperback)
Ashford in Kent, with its mildly risible strapline `Gateway to Europe', should be very pleased with Nicola Barker, who has taken its mundane amenities and sprawling blight of industrial estates and turned it into a place of infinite and magical possibilities. Chief of which is the idea that, lurking in its deep suburban reaches, there might be a small worm-hole in time through which Darkmans makes his way to the present century. Darkmans is John Scoggins who was Edward the IV's court jester, (banished for cruel jokes against Elizabeth Woodville, Edward's queen), who seems able, at will, to inhabit the modern day bodies he comes across, but chiefly, that of poor Isidore (Dory), the tall, goodlooking German (who has a captivating wife, Elen, a chiropodist, also prey to Darkmans' cruelties). We first come across Dory riding bareback on a stolen horse in the fort-like kids playground of a graceless local dining hall named The French Connection. He has no idea how he got there. The only person who can `see' Darkmans is Fleet, the small five-year-old son of Dory and Elen.

A large cast of characters inhabit this superbly edgy, utterly captivating novel. Chiefly we are concerned with Dory's family and Beede, a 61 year-old who manages a hospital laundry, and his son Kane, who half-heartedly deals drugs, both of whom are plagued by foot problems. Though they live in the same house, Beede and Kane have a further grim disability when it comes to communication - and how this aspect of their life is resolved is one of the triumphs of this book. Kane's ex-girlfriend, Kelly Broad and her bottom-feeder family also feature large. Events pile up as Dory sets Kelly's Uncle Harvey on to mend his roof (the scaffolding arrives on time, but not much else happens) and Isidore's psychotic episodes intensify. Darkmans takes a holiday from Isidore and haunts Beede for a while (and this episode is wonderfully, hilariously dark), and Kane is put in the stocks (real ones) by Peta, the smart and sexy cigar-smoking woman who is doing artefact restoration work for Beede. Beede is engaged on an investigation into the history of Court Jesters, but he is also much exercised by the rapine and destruction of habitat occurring whole-scale in Ashford's local environment, chiefly due to the existence of the Channel Tunnel.

This whopping great paperback (838pp) will not be to everyone's taste. The sense of things not being quite right is suggested rather than focused upon (which gives the book its subtlety and suspense), and the writing is sometimes eccentrically punctuated. It has, however, a wonderful coherence and a sinister grace which kept me pinned to the page. It is also riotously funny. The humour is a brilliant mixture of slapstick and violence, married to a remarkable ear for incongruity. Language is its key - the variableness and instability of language is a major theme, from the casual obscenities of Kelly Broad, who gets religion in a big way but can't quite leave her working-class vernacular behind, to the reported speech of Turkish immigrant Gaffar, whose Turkish asides, often witty and adroit, are rendered in bold print, in English. This is a clever ploy and so much more effective than merely making his English pidgin.

My guess is that this book will either speak to you, or it won't. All I can say is that it spoke volumes to me and I loved every word. Shortlisted for the 2008 Booker, this is Nicola Barker's best book so far and, yes, it should have won.
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56 of 59 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Huge, 1 Oct 2007
By 
MisterHobgoblin (Melbourne) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Darkmans (Paperback)
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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars the rain it raineth every day, especially around Ashford, 21 May 2008
This review is from: Darkmans (Paperback)
Imagine ahuge novel of ideas like say, Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain", splice it with an Alan Garnerish children's time-slip fantasy, add the pithy social commentary of someone like Will Self, set it all in ultra-suburban Kent and people it with a chiropodist, a Kurdish immigrant, a middle-class drug dealer, a schizoid German security guard, builders (lots of builders), a hospital laundry worker obsessed with medieval culture, a creepy savant child and an admirably savvy (and rather chavvy)teenager - and you'd still only be halfway to describing Darkmans.

Despite the fact that for most of its 800 pages, nothing much happens at all, Nicola Barker's precise depictions of the machinations of human psychology should keep you fascinated throughout. The book's length allows the unfurling of a mind-bogglingly complex web of inter-relations between the characters, chance encounters become loaded with paranoid significance, and seemingly climactic episodes dissipate into the randomness of everday life. It's also frequently hilarious.

Ironically, the one let down occurs when plot rears its ugly head towards the end of the book - it's as if Barker felt compelled to tie-up the book's myriad loose-ends on a whim and (without giving too much away) you're left with a clumsy fusion of detective fiction, Jane Austen Bulgakov. Whilst on paper, this might sound quite good - the fact that most of the book suggests that our lives are defined by random historical contingencies beyond our control means that it would be nigh on impossible to wrap the whole thing up neatly. This is probably why, despite its mammoth size, it feels short.

It's not very often that you come across something genuinely different in contemporary fiction, but Darkmans is the real thing. A big book with big ideas (time, history, memory, identity, jealousy, modernity and about three hundred other things) that doesn't have to wear its intelligence on its sleeve.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dark chocolate, 7 Feb 2008
By 
Leyla Sanai "leyla" (glasgow) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Darkmans (Paperback)
Nicola Barker's Darkmans can be taken on several levels. If read without analysis, and with a wide-berth given to the less than subtle eerie touches, it's an exhilarating jaunt through the lives of several colourful individuals and families in Ashford.

But there is also the obvious thread of unease running through the tale which connects the reader to events that occurred many centuries ago, and the haunting presence of these historical characters adds a frisson of fear and the unknown. It is as if the evil court jester John Scogin is peeking mischievously through the pages, drawing parallels between life now and in his day.

The contemporary characters are idiosyncratic and fascinating. Kane Beede, who ostensibly seems like a sullen dealer and chancer, is more caring and intelligent than he outwardly appears. He lives in the same house as - but on a separate floor from - his distant father Daniel Beede, who is a man with a bee in his bonnet about many environmental issues, and who prefers to look anywhere but home for problems.

Daniel Beede is friends with Isidore (Dory), who may or may not be tortured by the early symptoms of schizophrenia. Dory's wife Elen is a soft-spoken chiropodist whose sole physical flaw - a facial birthmark - only serves to emphasise how beguiling she is: imperfection on perfection. Fleet, Dory and Elen's precocious child exhibits astonishing talents and voices unsettling insights - is he speaking nonsense?

Then there is bony Kelly Broad, brash and irreverent, who is neurotic about food and besotted with her ex Kane. But Kelly looks a cherub compared to the rest of her family, in particular her manipulative, demanding mother Dina and her crooked builder uncle Harvey.

Into this community arrives Gaffar Celik, a Kurd born in Turkey, who adapts surprisingly painlessly to the chaos of his unconventional new life .

The characters are inter-connected by coincidences which sometimes seem excessive but which could perhaps be feasible in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. The plot, such that there is, centres around the curiosity felt by many of the characters about the affairs of the others : Kane finds himself sneaking around his father's possessions to try and understand him better; Kelly wants to stick her nose into anything that may involve Kane, Dory is a man obsessed who starts to have paranoid delusions about his wife - or does he? - and Harvey is both pathologically lazy and snarlingly envious of his rival builder Garry Spivey.

Common human emotions pepper the pages - love, hate, jealousy, possessiveness, covetousness - and the people are fallible and believable, their failings as glaring as their strengths.

For me, the supernatural element was if anything a distraction; it seemed a bit like a cheap stunt - after all, it's easy to throw in spooky visions and dreams which predict the future or echo the past without having to provide a rational explanation for them. The suggestion that history simply repeats itself ad infinitum, with people throughout history mimicking the actions of their predecessors seemed slick and not at all credible. The book would still have worked without this USP and if anything, adding the element of the visionary to the dreams or utterings of certain characters cheapened the novel: is Barker suggesting that such a high proportion of her characters possessed this uncanny ability to see into the past or future?

Yet it is to Barker's credit that this cynical reader - who normally has zero tolerance for the bandying about of the scientifically inplausible - didn't flounce off at the first suggestion of mysticism. The characters were so well rounded and down-to-earth that I was compelled to read on, and the self-conscious attempts to 'deepen' the novel with the hints of hauntings from the past just fluttered in the background like net curtains wafting in the breeze, easy to put aside in the face of the rest of the riches on offer.

Occasionally, there are lingual tics which crop up excessively. For example, on page 47, the woman 'rejoined staunchly' and on page 48 the same woman 'continued staunchly'. On page 142, Mrs Santa 'continued staunchly' while on page 277, Charlie 'returned staunchly'. On page 356, 'she staunchly ignored' his flirting.
Similarly, someone seemed 'almost indecently familiar with' something on page 206, quickly followed by 'two indecently round brown eyes' on page 207.
But for the most part, the prose skips along fluently and easily, and the dialogue in particular is beautifully true to life.

This novel is hilarious, intelligent, perceptive and intriguing. The layer of self conscious complexity on top, with its strained and laboured connotations and interpretations, was an unnecessary attempt to tart up what didn't need tarting up, like cream piled onto a gorgeous cake - imperfection on perfection again.

**** 1/2
__________________
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very weird, 30 Dec 2008
By 
BookWorm "BookWorm" (UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Darkmans (Paperback)
This is one very weird book. Once you've established that and come to terms with it, it's much easier to enjoy. It's written in a style which I found intensely irritating, full of irregular paragraph spacing and with an obsessive overuse of brackets, and while I came to tolerate it I certainly never grew to like it.

For the first hundred or so pages I disliked it so much that I seriously considered giving up (an extreme measure for me). After that I became more engrossed in the story and decided to keep reading, which I am glad I did. Because for all its oddness, Darkmans is never dull and never predictable.

The story is hard to synopsise, but it centres around an unlikely group of eccentric characters living in the town of Ashford, who become caught up with the restless spirit (possibly) of a medieval jester. The characters are weird and not necessarily believable, but are original and fascinating at the same time and to my surprise I had warmed to most of them by the end. The plot (such as there is one) is too surreal to be followed closely.

Although I did find the style of writing annoying, it was effective. The sense of unease, of 'wrongness' is conjured up vividly, and I always felt disquieted whilst reading. There is a sense of a battle between the characters' desire to continue as normal and the dark undertones of the supernatural which keep forcing their way through the veneer of normality.

The reviews on this site prove what I suspected all along - you'll either love this book or you'll hate it. It certainly is the kind of novel people feel strongly about, one way or another. Although having said that I have rated it three stars, I suppose because I feel torn between the two extremes.

What's harder to say is which category any reader would fall into. I would say that readers who like gothic themes, surrealism, fantasy and experimental writing would be more likely to enjoy it than those who don't. But the only way you'll know for sure is to read it and find out...
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4.0 out of 5 stars A large dose of life, 19 July 2008
By 
JH Dickinson (York, UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Darkmans (Paperback)
I was, not uniquely, I suspect, left a little miffed upon finishing this novel - don't worry, I'm not going to spill plot points all over this review though. This is why I have knocked one star off my rating - I am quite traditional in the sense that I like novels to have some overarcing development across their length, and this seems, essentially, plotless. At least not in the 800+ pages present; Darkmans runs in a different timeframe - like evolution, or continental drift.
Not that it feels slow, however. I found myself caught up in the intersecting lives of the vibrant characters, and Barker's elegant writing. It plays as a social drama, with a twist that many of the main characters may or may not be possessed by a 500 year old jester, and those who aren't often have their own mysterious agenda.
You will finish this novel with more questions than answers, but that, I hope, is the intention!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Baffled why I couldn't put it down..., 1 April 2013
This review is from: Darkmans (Paperback)
So here's the thing: I'm an old fashioned girl. I like my books with a linear plot, a clear point of closure and not too many questions left unanswered. Darkmans really doesn't provide any of this - and yet I genuinely could not put it down. I think this is in part due to the incredible characterisation - these are truly three dimensional, immensely larger than life individuals. I also found some of the set piece scenes absolutely hilarious, for example when Kelly finds religion and is discussing this at length with the reverend, I was literally laughing out loud. All of this being said, I read the book over a very short period and I think had I been busier and not able to dedicate so much time to it it may have lost its flow for me. (and I'm still frustrated by the ending!)
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41 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Huge, 13 Aug 2007
By 
MisterHobgoblin (Melbourne) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Darkmans (Perfect Paperback)
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.
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Darkmans
Darkmans by Nicola Barker (Paperback - 27 Oct 2011)
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