Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007, Nicola Barker's Darkmans is frequently funny and occasionally disturbing. Set in Ashford, Kent, it's part social satire and part ghost story. There's little in the way of plot and the resolution left me baffled but that doesn't stop the book being a success.
What story there is concerns Beede, who works in a hospital laundry, Kane, Beede's drug-dealing son and Elen, their flirtatious chiropodist. It's also about Elen's husband Dory, who suffers from some kind of mental illness, and their son Fleet, who, according to DNA tests, is in fact Dory's distant ancestor. Then there's Kelly, Kane's teenage girlfriend, Gaffar, a Kurd who ends up working for Kane and a forger called Peta Borough.
Among all these characters flits the ghost of a 15th century jester, possessing them at times, tormenting them at others. Possession is an important theme, not only in the sense of spiritual possession, which raises questions about the authenticity of identity, but also in the sense of possession as ownership and as strength of character - self-possession. And of course, as a drug dealer, Kane could find himself charged with possession.
The question of authenticity of identity extends to objects too. Peta, the forger, makes her living by faking objects. Beede was involved in a campaign to save local historical buildings marked for demolition to make way for the Channel Tunnel rail link. They planned to save one building by demolishing it piece-by-piece and rebuilding it elsewhere - the authentic building on an inauthentic site. Ashford itself, a town taken over by commuters and the rail link, has lost its ties with the past and therefore its roots.
With the jester knocking about the novel can't fail to be about history, both its distance and its nearness. Beede is scarred by his obsession with history, Kelly is fascinated by her family history, and Dory lies about his. Peta argues that we have returned to medieval times.
All of this sounds very serious and intellectual but Barker delivers it with such wit that the 838 pages fly by. It's frequently hilarious. Whether it's Gaffar's morbid fear of lettuce or Barker's biting one-liners ("There are many imponderables in life but one irreducible fact is that people who climb mountains are invariably cunts."), there's plenty to laugh at.
Barker's style takes some getting used to. Her narrator is chatty and prone to interrupting herself parenthetically every few lines. Her characters acquire this habit too, their thoughts tumbling over one another in a way that's initially confusing but soon feels perfectly natural.
Her characterisation is very strong, something that's particularly evident as Barker slips between viewpoints. The contrast between, for example, Kane's view of Elen and her opinion of herself is marked and fascinating.
This is a remarkable novel. It's thoughtful, funny and a delight to read. I recommend it.