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A two-for-one ticket to Barkerland,
This review is from: Reversed Forecast / Small Holdings: AND Small Holdings (Paperback)
Nicola Barker is, for me, simply the most interesting novelist working in Britain today: here's a rather nifty re-packaging of two relatively short early novels.
"Reversed Forecast" is apparently a betting term, and gambling is one of the themes of her first novel. The reader is immediately plunged into the now familiar Barkerland: she was only 28 when this was published, but her utterly individual voice is already here; it could be summed up as darkly surreal, Monty Pythonish irony leavened by a surprising human touch (her characters are almost all oddballs, often losers; but she obviously cares about them, and she makes the reader care too). The central character, Ruby, is a likeable soul who experiences fewer difficulties with the business of living than most of Barker's creations: much of the plot concerns her unexpected acquisition of a racing greyhound. The rest of the novel's cast are decidedly odder: Sylvia, who has the bizarre ability to unwittingly attract flocks of birds of all kinds, and who is crippled by the allergic condition Bird Fanciers' Lung; anarchist Vincent; Stephen, who has a thing about Meryl Streep. The plot is (as ever with Barker) complex; but after a variety of darkly tinged mayhem, the ending is upbeat.
"Small Holdings" is shorter and more comic, though still with Barker's characteristic shadowy undercurrents. It involves the lives of a company of gardening contractors as they lose the franchise for the upkeep of a North London park. There's painfully shy Phil, our narrator; manager Doug, quietly going utterly off the rails, who blames the ills of the universe on the failings of the London postcode system; half-blind truck driver Nancy, with whom Phil is in love; fat, cherub-faced Ray... oh yes, and Phil's arch-enemy and tormentor, a female ex-museum curator with only one leg called Saleem. Barker does some utterly extraordinary things with this unlikely cast, and the book contains some remarkable set pieces: Doug's greenhouse-smashing tractor rampage; Nancy's Big Night Out; Saleem's near-seduction of Phil.
Both books are shorter and more anarchic than her later offerings, and to some extent feel like an initial working-out of themes she returns to in her later, meatier books. However, as an introduction to her offbeat world, this is a very attractive package.