Thursday, September 25, 2008

Nicola Barker's "Darklands": Book Review.

This tale (shortlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize-- it makes John Banville's "The Sea" read like Hemingway's "The Old Man & the Sea") of madness, confidence tricksters, arcane learning, and characters overcome by ennui in a dreary Kentish exurb where the chainstores and tract homes have nearly obliterated charm, tradition, and Englishness takes up 838 pages of smallish, determinedly severe Helvetica-style font. It's a challenge to read, and while often hilarious in particular scenes that send up the Broad family, a louche set of low-lifes with unfortunately a bit of cash, it does take a very long time to move the intricate plot and many characters along their intersecting paths.

As one of a few dissembling figures puts it late on: "And perhaps I was an unwitting midwife to something, [. . .] but if I was, then it was something that was already born." She dissuades another character, who's encountered rather demonic happenings, from thinking that such crazy occurrences mean any grand convergence. Magicians, priests, psychics and those who fool us, she insists, "play on the universality of human experience, on how bland, how predictable, how homogenous we all really are." (825) Yet, her interlocuter "didn't seem entirely convinced," and I agree. Barker's on to the energy underlying seemingly random events, the "kismet" of crossed destinies, and our eager wishes to make patterns where they may not be.

There's enough strangeness within these pages, with Johan Huizinga's "Autumn of the Middle Ages" discussed at welcome if awkwardly inserted length, with other disquisitions elaborating upon matters such as prana yoga, Flannery O'Connor's peacocks, the Kurdish sect of the Darwasin and their fear of lettuce, Renaissance polymath Andrew Boarde, and court jester John Scogin. Rather unbelievable that many of the characters, given their otherwise suspect literacy, would engage in elevated and extended discourse on recondite lore ad infinitum, but a fantasy world I'd welcome more than the usual diversions peddled them and us to pass the time! I admit not all the patterns cohere at the end; I was disappointed in more than one thread that did not blend into the larger pattern, but this may be deliberate: the book has as many loose ends as it does tied knots in terms of its narrative resolutions.

Perhaps there's room for another installment? As it is, "Darklands" certainly raises more questions than it answers even within 838 pages. This is the third in a series of her novels that explore English life along the southern inland estuaries, and I suspect we have not heard the last of many rambunctious voices. The novel is both more learned and less daunting than other reviewers may have let on. It's not as consistently uproarious as some nervous publicists want to assure readers of its manic scenes. A few of these, starring the Broad clan, make great moments early on, but the general mood darkens as the novel progresses and inexplicable visitations wreak havoc on the hapless inhabitants of dismal Ashford. Possessions, attacks, and subterfuge loom large as the plots thicken and congeal. Surely the Watcher of the Woods in a splendid chapter with a pregnant terrier that appears to have landed within this already uneasy story as if from an ancient Green Man legend, shows Barker's capable of surprises-- this section I found much more dazzling than any other part of this novel. It stands out like a vivid nightmare half-recalled.

So, as long as you can handle a sprawling, extensively erudite, and often baffling and open-ended farrago of information, rumor, visions, inspiration, insanity, and stupidity, "Darkmans" may entertain you. Barker solves much but not all, so be forewarned. And, you may not look at fleas, lettuce, podiatry, or Kurds the same way again.

(Posted to Amazon US today: "Because it doesn't serve our purpose to see the whole picture." 3.5 stars)

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