I started reading it having heard of Nicola Barker’s name as ‘one to watch’. She’s steadily attracted attention ever since she was named as one of the 20 Best Young British Novelists by Granta in 2005 and her last novel The Yips was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The announcement that her latest novel, In the Approaches, was nominated for the 2015 Folio Prize motivated me to get to know this writer.
I knew she had a reputation for somewhat off beam plots and characters but I wasn’t prepared for a novel that lurched so wildly from knock about humour (the central male character ends up with a very embarrassing medical condition) to the bizarre (a conversation conducted naked inside a small sauna perched on the edge of a crumbling cliff) and unrequited love, taking in mysticism and links to IRA bomb plots along the way.
Set in a picturesque coastal village of Pett Level “in the approaches of Rye Bay and Hastings” it features Mr Franklin D Huff, an ex journalist who arrives to take up temporary residence in the village. He’s there to uncover the truth about events 14 years ago when his former wife, a world famous photographer, lived in the Levels and had an affair with a mural artist who may or may not have been involved with the IRA. Huff’s arrival in the village stirs up the murky past, particularly for his landlord Miss Carla Hahn. She was once nanny to the artist’s daughter, a half-Aboriginal thalidomide girl who developed a reputation as a visionary until her early death. Carla is desperate to preserve intact the girl’s achievements and her legacy.
The story unfolds slowly with many digressions including two pages of possible solutions to hiccups and a LOT of sections of dialogue which don’t advance the plot much. Most of the dramatic events seem to happen off stage and we discover them only through the somewhat clumsy device of conversations or interior monologues. Huff and Hahn alternate as the main narrators, but we also get a few chapters seen through the perspective of a neurotic parrot (supposedly these were meant to be funny but it was one conceit too many for me). More amusing was the character of Clifford the milkman, frustrated because his love of Carla Hahn goes unacknowledged and because his destiny is to be the minor character in the novel, a little bit of local colour or just “A tragic afterthought dreamed up by the mean cow of an Author to add that tiny bit of extra depth, a light gloss of policy – a nice, reliable pinch of snuff…. to the ‘main’ the important, the real, the actually-grown-up-three-dimensional relationship.”
He talks back to the author, complaining that she’s going to make him act totally out of character before killing him off quickly. He also makes some snide comments about her previous books : “She killed someone in another novel (forget the name of it, offhand) with a frozen, miniature butter pat and then she won a prize. A prize! A big money prize! What were they thinking?!”
Beyond the humour, Barker seems to be striving to make a point about people like Carla Hahn who are stuck, in the metaphorical ‘approaches’, circling around life rather than engaging it it fully. Even her house is on the fringes, each year getting closer to the sea as the cliff beneath it crumbles. By the end a more profound tone emerges as Carla ‘is found’ and realises that the only certainty in life is love. “The way it flew. The way it burns. Almost senselessly. Until everything is devoured. Everything is consumed. And then it dies and is gone. Just the ashes remaining. A pointless little pile of exquisite, feather-light flakes of depleted carbon.”
Why Barker left it so late to give us something worth reflecting upon, I can’t imagine. “Does she ever get around to telling a story?” asks one character. “I can’t seriously imagine her Average Reader would approve… they’ll all say she’s losing the plot.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself. Having reached the end of this shambling romantic comedy I was no nearer understanding the point of it, than I was at the beginning.
In the Approaches is published in UK by HarperCollins UK, Fourth Estate. My copy was provided by NetGalley in return for an honest review.