by Nicola Barker
Barker's previous novel Darkmans was a vastly ambitious (not to mention weighty) tome that looked at a couple of days in that most modern of towns, Ashford - Gateway to Europe, and was literally bursting at the seams with inventiveness in language, character and form. Not exactly a book to recommend to friends but one that those who had made their way through it would talk excitedly about, and a nod from the Booker panel duly followed. So I was very excited to get my hands on her new book, 'a comic epistolary novel of startlingly originality and wit', and therefore hugely disappointed to find it to be an occasionally humorous but mainly verbose, slow and uncompelling read.
As is obvious form the title and cover art the set up is that we are reading the contents of the recently broken into postbox in the 'chocolate box' village of Burley Cross in West Yorkshire -'a tiny, ridiculously affluent, ludicrously puffed-up moor-side village, stuffed to capacity with second-home owners, southerners, the strange, the 'artistic', the eccentric and the retired'. Whodunnit? Well, I guess we're supposed to find out as Barker slowly builds up her cast of characters and their intersecting relationships and story-lines. The case is laid out first by Sgt Everill as he hands over the job that very nearly broke him to PC Roger Topping (described in a later letter as 'a huge, forlorn elk, a tragic bison, lumbering about the place in that improbably gigantic pair of perpetually squeaking loafers of his like some heavily tranquillised mastodon'). We then read through the stash of letters found dumped in the alley that runs behind the local hairdressers, a litany that shows 'how fiercely different local factions like to guard their own patch' and includes their personal obsessions - planning permission, bequests, privacy, debt, manhole cover theft, unrequited love...
One immediate problem that occurred to me was that if this was a theft then presumably the incriminating letter(s) won't be amongst the stash found dumped in the alley behind the village hairdressers; therefore if we're going to learn anything from what we read then it's certainly going to be by taking the long route round. And it is a long route. Twenty seven letters over 360 pages. The first challenge that a reader might raise, questioning whether we're really a nation of letter writers any more, is handled conveniently by placing an attractive new member of staff in the sub-post-office who tempts the residents of Burley Cross to put pen to paper with a new fervour. However, I'm not sure if I swallow that people are in the habit of writing letters that run to more than ten pages and are written in a vernacular that so closely apes the speech of each author. We have digressions, parentheses and even footnotes in some cases, all of which help Barker in her acts of ventriloquism - and to be fair she is very good at creating the voice of each character this way - but it always feels more like speech written down rather than like reading a real letter. The one instance in which it really works is when we read the transcript of a tape recording made by local music star Frank K Nebraska to his agent, complaining abut his ghost-written memoir. The foul-mouthed, 14-page tirade, delivered whilst going to the toilet, is hilarious, leaving you almost disappointed when the tape runs out.
Much of the writing is caught up in the service of illustrating these grotesque character studies, the language profane, idiomatic, vernacular, but every now and then (but far too infrequently) something beautiful emerges - in fact to describe the infrequent, badly distributed kindnesses of one character Barker uses the image of 'those tiny scraps of burned newspaper that fly out of a bonfire - delicate tornadoes - on a gusty autumn afternoon'. It's a shame because the book is in part a paean to the lost art of letter writing. However annoying and unlikeable many of the village residents are Barker is essentially writing a sympathetic homage to the disappearing village community.
I know that pubs are on their way out (hundreds are closing every week), that they're merely a sad reminder of things past (the way we once were, The Good Old Days), just like 'community spirit' is, and communities themselves, and churches, and local bobbies, and pickled walnuts, and brass bands at fetes, and tall hedgerows, and handwritten letters, and home-cooked meals, and sparrows, and boredom, and books, and gob-stoppers, and ladybirds, and innocence...
It doesn't matter how many times I tell myself that life is too short to waste time finishing books that one isn't liking, I still find it hard to condemn a book without finishing it, ever hopeful that it might redeem itself by the end. It was that rather than a burning desire to know whodunnit that kept me persevering to the final letter, more fool me, I'll just have to be sterner with myself next time. Perhaps I should write myself a strongly-worded letter.