DARKMANS by Nicola Barker Fourth Estate £17.99 pp838
In Nicola Barker's enormous comical epic, a large cast of confused characters blunder their way haphazardly through a few chaotic days in the Kent town of Ashford. Or perhaps things are not so haphazard. The events are possibly being arranged by an evil spirit out of the past, “The Darkmans”, the revenant form of John Scogin, Edward IV's court jester. Scogin's favourite jest was to trick a group of beggars into entering a barn, then bolt the door and torch the place. Not exactly Ken Dodd, then.
He manifests himself momentarily to various characters a small, mean-looking man in a yellow coat. At other times, he seems to possess people and make them act in strange and harmful ways. Or vicious birds will suddenly materialise to do his bidding. The net effect is that, while only one character, Isidore the security guard, is clinically bonkers, everyone else ends up a bit mad as well.
Daniel Beede, who runs the hospital laundry, pursues a weird grudge that involves duplicating everyday objects to create unease in the victim. His son Kane goes on aimless quests and obsesses over the Middle English origins of certain words. Isidore, without warning, rolls around on a beach to cover himself in mud. His wife Elen explains to a passer-by, “I'm afraid he's. . . well, he's German,” but he isn't, he only pretends to be.
Elen, a chiropodist, seems nice and gentle, but she turns out to be a malign flirt of possibly sinister purpose. The couple's small son Fleet is building a model of Albi Cathedral in matchsticks and keeps reciting chunks of Scogin's biography that he cannot possibly know. When Isidore, being paranoid, pays for a secret paternity test, the DNA lab reports that Fleet is not his son but his distant ancestor.
Kelly, Kane's teenage ex, is a cheerful chav, relatively sane, but even she suddenly gets God and starts seeing signs everywhere. Only Gaffar, Kane's Kurdish gofer, seems unaffected, letting it all pass him by. Although he does have this morbid fear of lettuce.
Artistically but annoyingly, Barker omits certain key scenes to make the rest more bizarre and inexplicable. We never know why Kane, visiting a client, arrives with his face covered in charcoal, or why Beede wakes up in the shower to find blood and feathers all over the house and the cat strangled.
And the resolution seems arbitrary and unsatisfactory, explaining little of the foregoing drama.
That said, the bulk of the book is inventive, witty and well staged. I just wonder. . . The blurb tells us the story is a metaphor to do with “love and jealousy”. Right, and we have phantom birds flapping about, marks appearing on people's skin from nowhere, figures from the past invading the mind and making history repeat itself. The master text underlying all this, surely, is not the obscure 16th-century pamphlet Scogin's Jests. It is The Owl Service, the spooky 1967 children's classic by Alan Garner, still in print. Darkmans is a considerable work, but Barker does take 838 pages to say a little less than Garner conveys in 173. One gauge, perhaps, of the difference between talent and genius.
This review first appeared in The Times.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007