Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ashford: Twinned with Macondo?

Bookie Graham Sharpe (he sets the odds for William Hill) has, belatedly, come round to the view that Mister Pip should win this year's prize. Of course this is bad news for Lloyd Jones because the bookies are always wrong. After the shortlist was announced my instinct was that it would be a two-horse race between Mister Pip and Animal's People, and that the latter would win - and since it's the only one of the shortlisted titles I haven't read a bad word about, I think ranking it as a 7-1 outsider is a bit naïve.

There is a dark horse on the loose though, one which may prove too brilliant to be ignored, and it's also a 7-1 outsider according to Mr. Sharpe. (Is his middle name 'Notso' I wonder?) "Someone in the literary world" tipped off Martin Hannan of the Scotsman that "the Booker judges will plump for Nicola Barker and her audacious, almost experimental, novel called Darkmans."

Well, maybe. I'd love to see Nicola Barker win, but Graham Sharpe won't be impressed. "Stylistically it's full of brackets which drive you mad," he says of Darkmans. It's true, stylistically Nicola Barker ain't no Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but isn't this fabulous journey around a town and its inhabitants haunted by its history - simultaneously both down-to-earth and phantasmagorical - a sort of chavvy magic realism?

Sharpe also complains about the length of Darkmans and, at 838 pages, it may seem frighteningly long - but this is not a book where boredom is a possibility: it will leave readers baffled, certainly, but never bored. It's quite a trip.

"I took some quiet satisfaction," Nicola Barker told the official manbookerprize website, "from the fact that I had released a work of art into the world which was utterly singular and was going to mess with other people’s heads in exactly the same way that it had messed with mine."

It certainly has been getting into people's heads:

"I'm getting the strangest feeling that this is a really important book. Isn't this what Charles Dickens did?" says one blogger, who describes herself as "a fully paid-up member of The Loved Every Word Club"; while another says it is extraordinary the way Barker "can write a book with such singular focus and yet such vagueness; it is a sleight of hand and eye that conceals great skill," and that contemporary fiction "just doesn't get any better" than this "astonishing, gargantuan beast of a novel, combining the social acuity of Jane Austen, the wordplay of Ali Smith and the creepiness of Poe."

Strangely, Darkmans is dedicated to a man the author has never met - a Californian bookseller called Scott Ehrig-Burgess. The Telegraph revealed that he filled in a comment card enclosed in proof copy of Behindlings. "Nicola Barker," he said, "is a talent so rare, iridescent and startlingly wonderful, that we, as booksellers and publishers, living in an age where television adverts seem to be the riskiest art we have, and books have the shelf life of Hollywood films, do not deserve her. Cities will be built upon her words and generations to come will envy us for having loitered on this earth with her. What I am trying to say is, I liked the book a great deal."

It must be gratifying, almost to the point of mortifying embarrassment, for a writer to receive such a eulogy - especially if you don't get much feedback from your readers because they are a bit scared of you. As Barker herself put it in an interview in The Observer, 'They don't think, "She's just like me." They think "She's a maniac, why would I write a letter to her? What would she do, eat it?"'

Earlier this week I was listening to A Good Read on Radio 4, and something the historian Bettany Hughes said about Jane Gardam's Bilgewater echoed my own feelings towards Darkmans: "You don't want to be in the real world, you just want to be with the book; and you feel like you're being deeply disloyal to it for any minutes you spend out of its company."

I feel like that now, writing this.
I should be reading more of Darkmans instead...


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At Thursday, November 26, 2009 at 6:28:00 PM GMT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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