Readers familiar with Nicola Barker’s hyper-caffeinated style will be surprised by the almost serene first few chapters of her latest novel. It’s 1984 and we are in Pett Level, Hastings, a marginal location even by Barker’s standards (previous novels have been set in Luton, Ashford, and the Isle of Sheppey), and a well-travelled man named Franklin D. Huff is investigating a series of events that took place there many years earlier.
The events themselves are nebulous. Something about miracles, romantic affairs, and a saintly child deformed by thalidomide. Before Huff can find any answers, though, countryside serenity is replaced by the quirks of Barker’s reckless imagination.
As is usual with Barker’s fiction, the story is a blurb-writer’s nightmare. She prefers a constellation of seemingly banal symbols freighted with meaning — a cryptic number, a coat, a hair-clip — to plot. Above all else, she enjoys spooky, ungraspable forces attached to ludicrous situations. Posting an envelope becomes a supernatural catastrophe; a pilgrimage to Douai Abbey leaves Huff with painfully sealed buttocks; sudden landslips swallow sheds and bungalows.
Characters take turns narrating chapters in the fervid first person — exclamation marks and italicisations are used as blunt instruments to signal their agitation — except for a few interludes that are in a cracked kind of third person from the perspective of a parrot.
Weirder still is a country bumpkin called Clifford Bickerton, who is perhaps the furthest Barker has ever gone in her quest to cajole her audience. He is a dull, sidelined figure who finds himself conscious of his plight as a work of fiction, and begins railing against (what he sees as) the flaws of the novel. ‘The book’ll bomb,’ he remarks (meaning In the Approaches). ‘It’ll be remaindered two days after publication and I’ll be remembered as one of her most unsuccessful characters, ever.’ Later he disparagingly compares Barker to Edna O’Brien, a ‘real writer.’
This kind of trickery can be as annoying as it sounds, just as the non-stop shuffling and re-emphasising of words can get out of hand (‘The envelope was gone. Of course it was. It was gone. The envelope of cash was gone. It was gone.’) Barker is not a very careful writer, and all of her characters seem permanently to have either a grimace or a ‘wry’ smile etched on their faces.
There is, however, a curious energy to In the Approaches that picks up speed as the narrative becomes more preposterous — contrasting with many of Barker’s previous novels, which tend to run out of steam about halfway through. I read it quickly, and I smiled (though never wryly) more than I grimaced, but I’m certain Barker had much more fun writing it. This is her tenth full-length work, and clearly she is wedded to the divisive pungency of her own voice. The consistent lack of compromise is admirable, even if it means no sensible person would want to read any of her novels more than once.