I've been scooting around the internet trying to find out everything I can about Nicola Barker, the author of Darkmans, the latest novel to smash my mind into a thousand pieces, melt the pieces down into a syrup and then put it in the freezer until it's solid again but forever changed. I love those novels. I love the people who write them. I google them obsessively. I promise I'm not weird. Well, not very.
I'm thrilled to learn that Barker's been busy making herself known as the author of fiction that is weird, marginal and confronting. "Not for every reader" seems to be the refrain. According to Man-Booker Prize judge Giles Foden's suggestion in the Guardian her work couldn't win this year's prize because it wasn't reader-friendly. "With much more disciplined handling, [the novel] could have been a 'Middlemarch' for our times," he writes.
Darkmans wasn't supposed to be "disciplined". It isn't well behaved, it doesn't so much have a plot as an underlying theme and its protagonists are all people on the very fringe of society who are difficult to feel sympathetic towards. It's also more than 800 pages long. It's creepy, dark and at times very funny. Apparently judges don't like that. But who cares, apparently I do.
Generally speaking, Darkmans is about history catching up with the present. But it's not so much a collision as a congruence. The present, the novel says, is informed by history - the two cannot be separated, they walk the same path, they inhabit the same places and all kinds of strange things can pop up when you least expect them. At the centre of the novel is an Edwardian jester called John Scoggin. He inhabits each of the characters by turns, making them do terrible things. He is funny, irreverent and dangerous. So is the novel. So when Foden suggests it should be more "disciplined" I wonder if he actually read it.
Darkmans is also about language. It is about the development of language, its influences, its evolution. Characters in searching for words, dredge up medieval English and Latin among other languages before landing on the one they want. Writing a book about language is dangerously self-referential but to do it Barker steps outside of traditional form and she does it brilliantly. She is all word-play, in-jokes and asides. She has one of her characters, Peta, say it directly in the last few pages when she talks about an "absurd idea that language has these gaps in it and that lives can somehow just tumble through" and admits that in floating the concept she "just said what I needed to, so we'd both end up here". Barker is talking directly to the reader, apologising, in a way, for the confusion but saying that the ends justify her means.
I didn't get the ending at first. It is like the first time you saw The Sixth Sense and when you realise Bruce Willis is dead and you think, "wait a minute," and you have to quickly replay the entire film back in your mind. In fact when the novel ended I felt I had to turn around and read it again, which is saying something for a book close to 1000 pages. The novel says what it needs to subtly. It glances obliquely at concepts without looking directly for fear that an already jittery reader may go blind. It hints, it suggests, it whispers in your ear and lets the gap between your neurons put in all the scary details. Then it claims innocence - you thought of that all by yourself, you sicko.
Anyway, I'm really bad at reviews so read this one by Patrick Ness that says everything I want to say but better.