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Wonderful coherence and sinister grace: it should have won the Booker,
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.