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The etiquette of fiction reviewing states that only the barest amount of plot should decently be revealed and that spoilers are decidedly unacceptable. Luckily, such niceties rarely apply when considering Nicola Barker’s novels and, in the case of her latest, In the Approaches, the rule book can be done away with entirely.
This new novel barely has a story and to disclose some of its more colourful details is to give little away. To take an almost random sample: the male lead, Mr Franklin D Huff, has a business in Mexico that makes fake shrunken heads; there is a parrot that imitates a ringing telephone; a putrescent shark in a suitcase; a morbidly obese dog that is buried alive; a pair of fused buttocks; and a possum-skin coat decorated with Aborigine hieroglyphics. And the book is set in a cluster of houses on a clifftop near Rye.
None of this exuberant inventiveness will surprise Barker’s followers. From the Man Booker-nominated Darkmans to her tale of golfing in Luton, The Yips, she has carefully avoided both the traditions of genre and the narrative arc. Nor does she create proper people but rather “characters” who resemble proper people only to lesser or greater degrees. Describing Barker’s style is rather like trying to define umami – the flavour is both distinctive and elusive.
In this new novel, the reason for Mr Huff’s presence in the village of Pett Level in 1984 is to research the lives of some of the earlier occupants of Mulberry Cottage: an Irish muralist called Bran Cleary, his half-Aboriginal wife “Lonely” and their pious, Thalidomide-afflicted daughter Orla. All are now dead. Orla, meanwhile, is revered by several of the people who once knew her as a saint – her visitations and very minor miracles (the clearing up of psoriasis on the hands) heralded by the smell of eucalyptus. Huff, too, has personal connections to this trio.
Huff’s landlady is Miss Carla Hahn, formerly Orla’s nurse, and the pair stumble via innumerable misunderstandings towards some sort of grudging romance. Huff is a man fuelled by a permanent sense of outrage, and, if the realisation that he is developing feelings for Miss Hahn stokes it, then it is fanned into full flame when it begins to impinge on him that Orla’s saintly presence might not be felt only by religiously susceptible minds.
Barker wraps the subject of faith in set-piece humiliations for her characters. The fused buttocks are Huff’s, Hahn, meanwhile, is debagged while stuck climbing a gate and dislocates a thumb, while another figure, the gangly Clifford Bickerton, is humiliated by his very presence in the novel and in a metafictional twist berates “the cow author” for using him as a minor character. As Huff says at one point, head in hands as the oddities around him multiply, “It’s all . . . all very confused . . . confusing.”
He is right. While Barker’s way with dialogue is as sprightly as ever, her handling of the comic scenarios is less adroit. There is also a bagginess about the book, with characters frequently repeating what has just been described by another. While the novel is comprised of entertaining strands, they refuse to cohere properly so that In the Approaches never quite arrives anywhere. What the reader is left with instead is an extended shaggy dog story about faith told as a farce.