In the Approaches by Nicola Barker is one of those books where the author seems to be having so much fun they’ve forgotten about their readers. Amusing in snatches it was also frustratingly confusing. By the end I had no clearer idea of its purpose than I had at the beginning.
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.
In the fictional town of Holt, Colorado, one woman despairs of life of spinsterhood that awaits her after a scandalous love affair while another is awakened to the shallowness of her relationship with her boyfriend. Across town, the desperately unhappy son of a minister wants only one thing – to escape this town and return to his former home in Denver. They all have cause to regret missed opportunities and lives that could have been different.
In the midst of all these stories is Dad Lewis, the elderly owner of the town’s hardware store. The novel opens with the news that he has terminal cancer. He leaves hospital knowing he has one final summer of life ahead. As he waits out his remaining weeks he takes an inventory of his life; weighing up the success of his 50 year marriage and his business against his failure as a father.
There are ghosts in his past that he wants to lay to rest, regrets he wants to remedy. Outwardly Dad Lewis is rather an ordinary man:
… somebody straight up and down like the hands of a clock…. somebody you could depend on, somebody to trust completely.
This is a man who sets high standards for himself and those around him; a man not afraid to take hard decisions even when they meant hardship for others, but also a man with a good heart, doing what he could to support his neighbours. For years he secretly supported the widow and son of an employee he was forced to sack for stealing. Now as he lies dying he puts arrangements in place to help an elderly woman with her gardening and household chores. The one ghost that continues to haunt him is his troubled relationship with his estranged homosexual son Frank. Split by anger and misunderstanding they have not seen or spoken to each other for decades. Is it too late for them to make their peace and for Dad Lewis to find redemption?
This isn’t a novel in which a tremendous amount happens. The focus is really on the little dramas of life, or as the town’s Minister describes it “the precious ordinary of life that passes without their knowing it”. It’s told in an economical style devoid of figurative language but shot through with richly evocative descriptions of landscape and the heat, wain and wind that sweep down on Holt from the Colorado plain.
Haruf’s prose has a quiet power that infuses fairly ordinary actions, turning them into something more grand. There is one wonderful scene for example where three generations of women shake off their inhibitions to skinny dip in a cattle water tank. Haruf suffuses the joy of the physical action with the air of a baptismal celebration.
Benediction, published by Picador, is Haruf’s third novel set in Holt.
It’s shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize, the winner of which will be announced on March 10.
There’s a good interview with Haruf in the Independent newspaper in which he talks about some of the locations and settings that inspire his writing.