Wednesday 28 April 2010

'the insignificant weft and weave'

Burley Cross Postbox Theft
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.


Stewart 28 April 2010 at 08:21  

Well, I loathed the experience of reading Darkmans. Based on this, it looks like I'm going to enjoy the experience of not reading this. Sounds like she drags the same old whimsy from book to book.

William Rycroft 28 April 2010 at 13:34  

I loved Darkmans but really didn't enjoy this. I've never really been tempted to go back and read any of her earlier work either and your use of the word whimsy, Stewart, keeps me even further away!

Anonymous,  28 April 2010 at 15:54  

I liked Darkmans, not her previous books and had this one on the "maybe" scope. Your thorough review has moved it to the not-for-me pile. Like Stewart, I find that Barker "drags the same old whimsy" and formate from book to book -- and more often than not it doesn't work. Many thanks for saving me both the money and time. Of course, if the Booker jury promotes her again this year, I'll probably have to change my mind again.

Annabel (gaskella) 28 April 2010 at 16:14  

Super review - I did love some of the little quotes you picked out - I lost interest in marking bits to quote in my review after the dog turds(!) but there were bits of lovely writing hidden in there.

Although I didn't really enjoy reading it, I'm glad I did persevere, and I will definitely read Darkmans as there's something in her writing that I really identify with - apart from the London suburbs links - but I can't put my finger on it!

Thank you for the link on your sidebar too, I really appreciate it.

William Rycroft 29 April 2010 at 00:50  

My limited experience of Barker lends me to believe that she's clearly a talented writer but has a hankering for gimmicks. If she could drop those, or push them so far that they become genuinely interesting, as I think they did in Darkmans, then she'll always be one to keep an eye on.

leyla sanai 4 June 2010 at 16:55  

Thanks for the thoughtful review, William. I think I'll give this Barker a miss. Darkmans was the first one of her novels I'd read and I loved it. I found it inventive, hilarious and irreverent (although I didn't buy the mystical bit.) I was so impressed that I promptly obtained most of her back catalogue, and was somewhat disappointed. Many of the stories seemed so doggedly focused on the bizarre (eg people who follow others about) that they lost touch with reality to the point that I didn't care about the characters. I think she is excellent at dialogue and at painting dysfunctional people but sometimes it seems she goes for kooky topics for the sake of it.

William Rycroft 5 June 2010 at 00:29  

I too loved Darkmans, Leyla, but have never been tempted by her back catalogue, suspecting esactly what you seem to have encountered when you read through it. Although this book plays to those strengths you mentioned (dialogue and dysfunction) it was very disappointing. Maybe she can win me back with her next one.

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