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Nicola Barker’s tenth novel is a rollicking, sometimes distasteful, often rule-breaking, four hundred and ninety-seven pages of slightly unhinged but extremely entertaining storytelling. Religion, sex, murder, terrorism, a parrot and a mynah bird, and even a character who interacts with the author, come flying off the pages in a full-on assault on your reading sensibilities.
Each short chapter in In the Approaches is titled with the name of either Mr Franklin D Huff, Miss Carla Hahn, Mr Clifford Bickerton, or the parrot, Teobaldo, and each chapter is told from their point of view in the first person. Yes, that includes the parrot. A large cast of other people, important in terms of the story, appears and re-appears throughout, but we only see narrative from the four of them. Sometimes events overlap between chapters, and sometimes they don’t, but Barker’s use of the present tense, at least in the early part of the book, gives the story pace and urgency.
There is a sense that only Nicola Barker can get away with something like this. Barker has said in interviews she doesn’t set much store on editing and rewriting, that there’s a lot to be said for keeping the thoughts and sentences that emerge first. She uses italics, spaces, idiosyncratic formatting (new speech marks always get a new line and no paragraph indent, indicating they are part of the same paragraph – or are they?) CAPITALISATION, ums and uhs and ahs, (brackets all over the place (and sometimes used in multiples)) and especially…the use of…of…repetition and ellipses…as if, uh, the thoughts…the thoughts were just, ah, tumbling…um, tumbling out.
Readers have no choice with recent Nicola Barker novels. The Yips was the same, as was Behindlings. You just have to go with it and, if you do, you’ll be rewarded. Read it aloud and see just how closely it resembles speech and thought. Put yourself fully in the shoes (and saunas) of the characters and you’ll live their crazy stories as if you were there.
Is Barker susceptible to cliché? Not written cliché, at least not noticeably, but characters? I’d have to say yes. The Irish priest, or is he a terrorist? The crippled child. The solitary woman looking for love. The talking parrot. The thing with a Nicola Barker novel is, would it really be a Nicola Barker novel without such characters? When you’re deep into a chapter, reading the thoughts, pauses and interactions in the first person, it doesn’t seem unreasonable. Its only later you might think, really? Did she really have to be so extreme?
Barker carries it all off with a huge amount of confidence. Who else could create a story where the wonderfully named Mr Franklin D Huff and Miss Carla Hahn feud and, possibly, fall in love while he investigates a thirteen year old murder (or was it?) using a picture diary made by Huff’s recently deceased ex-wife, that also features a short-armed saint-like half-Aboriginal thalidomide child called Orla Nor Cleary, a diabetic dog, a dead shark under the bed, a landslide, a mystical smell of eucalyptus, and a seemingly inexhaustible parade of other tragi-comic images?
The humour is laugh out loud, and sometimes slapstick, and will certainly strain the tolerance of the politically correct. The scene where Shimmy (a old, grumpy Jewish man, and Carla’s father) finds Carla stuck on top of a fence was painful in more ways than one.
There are frustrations. The parrot and mynah birds perhaps have one or two chapters too many dedicated to them. Clifford Bickerton’s interactions with the author, and his knowledge of her work, perhaps go too far. It is as if Barker recognises she’s pushed us to the brink of our willingness to indulge her, and she doesn’t give a damn so she’s going to push us even further. Let Bickerton call her a ‘useless author cow,’ and see if the readers agree. There is an unfathomable – to me, anyway – shift from first person present to first person past about half way through. Has Barker put it in just to annoy the people who notice such things? (And for those who don’t notice it, she has Clifford Bickerton point it out, scathingly, as authorial incompetency.)
You need a strong constitution to digest a Nicola Barker novel. They are in many ways – the characters, the plot, the number of words – larger than life. Whether you love it, hate it or simply don’t get it, it is unlikely you will ever forget In The Approaches.
Reviewed by C P Howe
In The Approaches
by Nicola Barker
Published by Fourth Estate, June 2014