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4.0 out of 5 stars Poetic Evocation of Malaise and Recovery, 18 April 2012
Kate Hopkins (London) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Offcomer (Paperback)
A lot of us have some pretty miserable periods in our early 20s. But few of us would be able to evoke depression and frustration as well as Jo Baker does with her heroine Claire in 'Offcomer'. The term 'Offcomer' is a Lancashire dialect word meaning 'outsider', 'someone who doesn't quite fit in'. Claire has felt all her life that she doesn't fit in, that she can't quite connect. She feels an outsider in the Lancashire village where she grew up due to her love of books, and the fact that her mother, a Jewish woman adopted as a young child into a Christian family, knew very little about her past (and, Claire discovers, a lot of what she told her daughter was in fact invented). While Claire was at university her father had a stroke, which reduced him to a mute and partially paralysed state and made Claire feel even more remote from those around her. Claire also feels an outsider at Oxford, too shy to bond easily with her fellow students, full of ideas about literature that she finds hard both to express on paper and to discuss. In order to escape the claustrophobia of student life she spends evenings at art classes. There she meets Alan, a Northern Irish doctoral student, with whom she drifts into an unhappy relationship. Graduating with a 2.1 (and feeling the usual disappointment known to many of us that it wasn't a first), Claire is unable to work out what she wants to do with her life, and ends up following Alan to Belfast where he has got a lectureship teaching philosophy. There, their relationship further deteriorates, with Alan developing Othello-like feelings of jealousy, and Claire feeling increasingly trapped. She begins to self-harm and to suffer from panic attacks. Clearly, something has to change. 'Offcomer' traces Claire's life over a few weeks, starting from shortly after her split with Alan (when she makes a disastrous decision involving the boyfriend of her friend Grainne), and moving on, with flashbacks to her schooldays and time at Oxford, to explore her return to Lancashire to try to rebuild her relationships with her mother and best friend Jennifer, and her decision to return to Belfast, where, little by little, she begins a process of healing.

What is most striking about this book is Baker's extraordinary and beautiful use of language. She describes quite mundane things such as packing a bag, pouring a pint of Guinness or lying in bed in a manner which is almost like poetry, making the thing described seem somehow magical. There are some beautiful passages, such as the scenes where Claire is attempting to draw, Claire's memories of going skinny-dipping with her friend Jennifer, a description of Claire going walking near her parents' home in a disturbed frame of mind, and the scene in which Claire discovers an unexpected friend in her employer Gareth, owner of Conways Bar, who offers her a home, and takes her for a drive just outside Belfast. She's interesting on relationships as well. Claire's relationship with Alan (a paranoid bully who forms a seriously twisted relationship with Claire) is fascinating if chilling to read about: Baker shows us all too clearly how a vulnerable girl could get into this situation, and, by giving us short sections told from Alan's point of view, makes him more complex and more pitiable than a simple villain. The friendship between Claire and Jennifer is well depicted; I found particularly effective the scene in which Claire becomes frightened of her friend, who has gone from being the lively extrovert one of the duo to a calm, contented womanly figure, the girlfriend of a local artist. I found myself desperately hoping the two could rebuild their friendship. And the material about Claire and her mother is also very interesting, though I'd have liked to know more about Claire's mother's Jewish origins. Gareth, the kindly barman and his boyfriend Dermot were also very well created. And Claire's progress from angst-filled depressive to a woman in the process of claiming her own identity was beautifully done.

If I stop short of five stars it's because the tone of the novel was a little unremitting in its bleakness until the final section (always a risk when writing a book about someone suffering from depression) and I felt we didn't learn quite enough about certain aspects of Claire's life. I'd have preferred to know more about her time at Oxford and maybe had a bit less material about her miserable solitude in Belfast, and also learnt a bit more about her relationship with her mother. There were occasions in the book where I felt the narrative tension sagged a bit too much. And I would certainly advise while reading this novel that you also have something more cheerful to turn to as reading matter. But these are small criticisms - on the whole, I found 'Offcomer' a beautifully written and very effective book; a fitting predecessor to Baker's magnificent 'The Picture Book'. I'm looking forward to reading 'The Telling', her third book, as well.
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5.0 out of 5 stars If you've ever felt adrift or had a sense of not belonging..., 23 Jan 2012
This review is from: Offcomer (Paperback)
I read this book about ten years ago but it still stays in my mind as one that had an impression on me. It is about an English girl who moves to Belfast and her struggles with apparent mental health problems, self harm and feelings of not belonging in the world. The book may have impressed on me so much because it mirrors almost exactly many events in my own life however I feel anyone who has ever felt adrift in life or struggled with depression would relate to the girl's story. It's also refreshing to read a book set in a local environment and I enjoyed reading the descriptions of her walks through the town and knowing the places she wrote about. It must be how people in New York feel when they watch some of the big movies.

From memory, I don't think we ever get to find out if there was some specific event or events from her childhood that lead up to her mental health problems and struggles with self harm. You are left to form your own opinions on this and although I generally like completion and closure at the end of a book, it definitely stimulated reflection.

Definitely worth a read if you're struggling or want to understand self harm/mental health issues better.

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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, 7 July 2003
A. CARTER "lovebeingamommy" (Virginia) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Offcomer (Paperback)
This is a wonderful book. The imagery is absolutely the finest I have ever seen in a book. It is an easy read and a page turner at its best. I was skeptical before buying it, just because I had never heard of the author. You are drawn close to the main character and by the end of the book, you wish there were more pages to read.
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Offcomer by Jo Baker (Paperback - 3 April 2003)
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