Top critical review
4 people found this helpful
All authors need editors, especially talented ones
on 12 September 2011
This book, for me at least, defines contemporary literary fiction as a genre. And what defines this work is a clever storyteller ambling through the world she's created, shrugging off the usual constraints of fiction, and throwing words in very large handfuls over her shoulder as she strolls. It has a plot, and witty, well-researched Nicola Barker knows it backwards - it's just she doesn't feel the need to let us, the reader, know what it is. Those writing in the lit-fic genre don't consider it to be a genre, of course - all other forms are genre fiction, and genre fiction conforms to tropes and standard narrative forms. Lit-fic prefers to suggest, hint and imply, then move on, making us dim-witted readers huff and puff to keep up with our storytellers. Lit-fic prefers to think of itself as outside genre, as better than.
I read the whole door-stop. Yes, the narrative sped-up in the last 100 pages as Barker realised she had some house-keeping to do before the whole thing ground to a halt on the side of the road, and yes, she left threads dangling in a way 'ordinary' genre fiction would never do. And, after we readers scanned the last sentence, I suspect most of us shuffled back to our lives, uncomfortably aware we're somehow lacking because we didn't 'get it'.
But really, we got what was there to be got. Characters who flit in and out, stilted action that reminds us of David Lynch movies, chunks of richly rewarding dialogue dotted here and there, themes referred to but not realised, and a truly fantastic sense of brooding horror lurking behind everything - a being of evil, powerful and manipulative, toying with Nicola's little people with amused and vicious malice. It is this monster that kept me reading, hoping that Barker's lit-fic whale would turn into an honest English Gothic horror novel. By page five or six hundred, I was sceptical Barker would provide me with the money shot, and this premonition proved correct.
Barker's monster, Scogin, is original and cleverly introduced. It's a good ploy not to reveal too much or too quickly when one is building suspense. But in the end I didn't get enough of him. Nor did I get any understanding of his presence or motive force. Those kinds of considerations, I suspect, don't rate in the oblique and subtle lit-fic world.
There is much of worth in this book, and I can't help thinking that if Darkmans was edited back to four hundred pages, you'd have a powerful, compelling, richly allusive, contemporary Gothic novel of substance, one that would linger and, one day, perhaps in fifty or sixty years, become something more than lit-fic - it would become literature.