Darkmans: Nicola Barker
Darkmans was shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize, and was considered a dark horse to win. It didn’t, of course, but I think it should have (and no, I haven’t read The Gathering yet). The book hasn’t had much attention since it was released – in fact, no reviews really, only numerous mentions of its shortlist status. The most obvious reason for its neglect is that it’s a bit of a brick, at 800 plus pages. But don’t let that put you off – this is one of the most fascinating novels I’ve read in a long time – okay, I’d go out on a limb and say it just may be the best book I’ve ever read.
It’s the kind of literary masterpiece you get from an author who says she adores Big Brother. What I mean by that is twofold: one, she does her own thing (what other literary luminary would cheerfully admit such a thing?) Two, it’s obvious that she has a mania for people watching (people of all kinds) – her social observation is sharp, apt and often very funny.
There is a whole host of connected characters in this book, but it really centres on just two of them: a father and son who are set up as absolute opposites in the opening pages. In fact, they’ve engineered themselves as each other’s opposite. Kane is a prescription drug dealer addicted to his mobile phone, ‘easy as a greased nipple and pretty much as moral’. Beede is an upstanding community member who hates modern life and is described as ‘the hair shirt in human form’. The pair meet byaccident in a dodgy cafe near their house, and are both distinctly uncomfortable at running into each other. Kane is running a drug deal, but he quickly realises his father is as nervy as he is, and wonders why. Beede is meeting his friend Elen and her precocious six-year-old son, Fleet. As they talk, Elen’s mad husband Dory appears at the cafe window astride a stolen horse. Dory is either schizophrenic or possessed by an ancient, malevolent jester, John Scogin, who also appears to inhabit other characters throughout the book. The meeting reawakens Kane’s interest in his father and he becomes obsessed with working out what he’s up to and who these strange people are.
Nothing and nobody are who they seem, and often the dodgiest characters end up having the purest of heart and vice versa. There are multiple interpretations of characters and events and it’s up to the reader to decide which to go with, and how deep to delve. There are plausible psychological or supernatural explanations for many of the strange happenings in the book (including Dory’s mania and his son’s eerie precociousness).
Other characters include a Kurdish immigrant terrified of lettuce, an anorexic bogan and a Goth who sews up her lips. This is part mystery, part riddle, part soap opera, part farce. One character is ‘Jabba the Hut with a womb and a council flat’. Another, the anorexic Kelly, converts to Christianity, initially lured by the idea of Lent (‘like goin’ on a special diet for Christ?’)
Highly recommended for anyone wanting a bit of a reading adventure. You will be thoroughly entertained along the way.
Jo Case is the editor of Readings Monthly and is the book reviewer on RRR’s Breakfasters every Tuesday at 7.45am.