Darkmans by Nicola Barker

A review of the contemporary literary fiction novel Darkmans by Nicola Barker.

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Nicola Barker’s seventh novel, Darkmans, is a long, quirky, difficult and meandering read, yet it remains exquisitely written amongst its ambling plot. That’s if you can even accuse it of having a plot, of course, as every inch of this 848-page novel challenges the reader to figure out what the heck it all means. Some may like that quality, and others not so much.

Brimming with mysterious happenings and uncertainties, we follow the father-son duo of Daniel and Kane Beede, as they go about their humdrum lives in Kent. Daniel is a hospital laundry worker, and an amateur historian deeply fascinated by the Middle Ages, while his son Kane is a drug dealer, who slings prescription painkillers to the people of Ashford.

Unbeknownst to either of them, both Daniel and Kane inadvertently get caught in a love triangle with a podiatrist, who quite understandably is obsessed with feet (‘fighting foot-crime and the causes of foot-crime’). That’s just a tease, as there is much in Darkmans that flirts with the absurd. These themes hint at the possibility of a malevolent curse passed down through the ages by John Scogin, King Edward IV’s court jester, tormenting and haunting the characters with grim glee.

Longlisted for a Booker Prize in 2007, what makes Darkmans so bewitching is (of course) Nicola Barker’s gift for crafting oddball personalities, and divining believable traits into otherwise peculiar people. If you’re not familiar with the author’s work, Nicola Barker is arguably the queen of idiosyncratic fiction, and is by my reckoning one of Britain’s finest writers. Though Darkmans may not be Barker’s best work, it is perhaps her most interesting—her panache for darkly comic frills is here in abundance, as is the kooky insight she brings to social observation.

With its bizarre collision of ancient history and our soulless grey modern age entwining a fear of hokum and the supernatural, you’ll find something which not just makes the heart flutter, but also raises a smile. Imagine the sort of dark humour you’d find in The League of Gentlemen and you’ll have some idea of how Darkmans shapes up like a witches’ brew: eye of newt, a sprinkle of freakish dalliances, a quizzical eyebrow, heaps of weird occurrences, and lashings of dark comedy.

Where the novel falls short lies in the knowledge that it is not for everybody—a Nicola Barker fan like me will lap it up, but those who like their fiction cut-and-dried may find this book fairly impenetrable. As beautifully written as each passage is, the fact that it doesn’t seem to coalesce into an easy-to-interpret narrative may prove challenging for some.

However, given I’ve lived in Kent all my life, the book’s depiction of Ashford—as well as Barker’s description of how the Channel Tunnel’s construction was met by residents—was fascinating, and Darkmans deserves to be read by locals for that reason alone. If (like me) you also happen to enjoy eccentric and off-kilter prose descriptions, which Nicola Barker is famous for, then in spite of your best efforts you’ll be in hog heaven with Darkmans. If you’re afraid of clowns, however, you might want to think twice.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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