Book review: In the approaches by Nicola Barker

June 18, 2014
Nicola Barker’s 10th novel is a dark comedy of manners set in 1984 near Rye, East Sussex. Largely conveyed through dialogue and interior monologue, it is told by a variety of characters—ranging from Carla Hahn, the half-German former nurse of Orla Nor, a young woman believed by some to be a saint, to Clifford Bickerton, the only character aware of being manipulated by what he calls “the cow Author.”

From her debut in 1993, Love Your Enemies, to the Booker-shortlisted Darkmans, Barker has always come at life sideways, usually depicting unglamorous places like Canvey Island and Luton. If you share her sense of the absurd, she is very funny indeed, and this novel—which is, among other things, an account of how two irritable, damaged and eccentric adults, Hahn and Huff, fall in love—is a riot. Are they being haunted by Orla, or is it their Author who is mischievously responsible? Why is Orla’s “shrine” full of forget-me-nots, and why do characters suffer indignities like being pooed on by a passing swan?

Barker plays with conventional narrative—her characters opine, mutter, smile, bleat and worse when speaking—and her send-up of Henry James may not be to everyone’s taste. However, her 494 pages describing those stuck “on life’s eternal ring road,” unable to “make that sharp turn into the very heart of the matter” ultimately become more affecting than affected.