I was cruising the Not the Booker 2014 longlist a couple of months ago, keen to read something I’d never heard of. I was itching to stretch my cognitive muscles outside of my comfort zone, wary of wedging myself in a reading rut. Along came the brilliant Nicola Barker and her latest novel, In the Approaches; a lively, even manic, tragicomedy set in 1984, steered by the emotionally (and geographically) turbulent experiences felt by a small group of people living in a small town on the Sussex coast.
The novel is constructed of a string of monologues from our three (or four, if you count Teobaldo, the incensed parrot) major characters, all bringing their own perspective on events that take place during 1984. They are united in their peripheral experiences of a family that came to live in the village some 12 years previously: the artist and IRA sympathiser Bran Cleary, his troubled wife Kalinda ‘Lonely’ Allaway, and their young daughter Orla Nor Cleary, the living saint tainted by thalidomide. Little Orla seems to have touched the lives of everyone around her (and those much farther away), and none more so than Carla Hahn, who acted as Orla’s ‘nurse’ until her death. Carla is frequently antagonised by the cynical Franklin D. Huff, a love interest and former journalist over from America to decipher and scrutinise the events surrounding the Cleary family, while solving a few personal mysteries of his own.
The character truly experiencing the torment of standing ‘in the approaches’ is poor old Clifford Bickerton – former squeeze of Carla’s, and a character plunging headlong into a nervous breakdown, constantly criticising the ‘cow Author’. It is not for us to know who the Author is (whether or not she is Barker), only to speculate. At once the Author could be Barker breaking through the pages and communicating directly with her character, expressing her self-doubt or pride through a Clifford shaped vessel, or she could simply be the fevered imaginings of an increasingly frustrated and dissatisfied member of the cast. I find both devices interesting, and this ambiguity only makes them more so.
A key theme running through In the Approaches is the concept of religion alongside, or versus, spirituality. As an atheist I can become sort of caustic in a discussion about religion, and at times I did feel mildly irritated by Barker’s seeming assumption that a degree of faith is a given, a necessity. Everyone in the novel has been touched by Orla and her pious deeds, either while she was alive or years after her death, and everyone at some point experiences a sense of something ‘other’ – be it fate, prayer or ghosties. It was something I found hard to get on board with, but I admire Barker’s ability to keep a subject like this plainly non-sickly. There were definitely pointed sections of the novel that provide us with the occasional lunacy of religious fanaticism, but it seems clear that Barker is falling on the side of the ethereal.
Barker’s prose is playful and tricksy, and above all, fun. She uses parenthesis with a compulsion, which on the surface makes her seem lost in her own storytelling, but in fact enfolds the reader in each of the character’s stream-of-consciousness soliloquies. In what initially felt like a pretty eccentric style, Barker presents internal ruminations to us in a way that makes perfect non-linear sense.
In the Approaches is, at its bare bones, a romantic comedy. And a pastoral mystery. And a family drama. But delve a little deeper and it’s much more – it’s a weird investigation into the connection between personal distress and faith, a literary and linguistic challenge, and a slapstick romance populated with embarrassing bum jokes. I recommend it because it’s unlike anything else I’ve read, and because it’s triggered my Nicola Barker binge. Next up: Darkmans.
In the Approaches is published by Fourth Estate, and can be found alongside Barkers numerous other novels in all good bookshops for £18.99.
And here for a little extra: an interesting article about the author herself…