A view of the Seven Sisters cliffs from Cuckmere Haven, East Sussex, 1950s. Photo: Getty
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Dwarf rabbits, bee stings and inflamed buttocks: In the Approaches by Nicola Barker

The scene is set in 1984 but  it could be any time between 1934 and 2014 in this backwater of the East Sussex coastline far from Thatcher’s Britain.

In the Approaches
Nicola Barker
Fourth Estate, 512pp, £18.99

Nicola Barker is a comic writer in the English tradition and In the Approaches is her tenth novel. The scene is set in 1984 but apart from a reference to the Brighton bombing and the appearance of Mrs Meadows, who dresses like Pam Ewing in Dallas, it could be any time between 1934 and 2014. The various Irish travellers, lovesick dairy farmers, thickly accented Germans, shifty priests, eucalyptus-exuding spirits and mathematical poets populating this backwater of the East Sussex coastline are entirely disengaged from Thatcher’s Britain.

The events are told through the perspectives of the principal characters, Franklin D Huff, a bad-tempered journalist and collector of shrunken heads who has turned up in Pett Level for suspect reasons, and Carla Hahn, a bad-tempered former nurse and collector of Russian artefacts, who is Mr Huff’s landlady. Bit parts are given to a distressed parrot called Teobaldo (“WAAAAAHHHHH!”), a telephone-impersonating mynah bird and Clifford Bickerton, a former boyfriend of Miss Hahn’s.

A human haystack “with hands like pitchforks and feet like hams”, Bickerton, whom Mr Huff refers to as “Pemberton”, reveals himself in internal monologues to have a profound loathing of the “cow author” who he fears will dispense with his character in a freak accident: “It’s obvious (predictable! Even to a registered thicko like me) how this thing is going to pan out. It’s all about them isn’t it? It’s all about Carla and Franklin D.”

Miss Hahn and Mr Huff, as they call one another, carry on like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, so Bickerton, who indeed vanishes from the story, is right. Both are obsessed with a series of unfortunate events that took place in the village 13 years ago, when an Irish muralist called Bran, his half-Aboriginal wife, whose name was “Lonely”, and Orla Nor Cleary, their fanatically religious thalidomide-victim daughter, were living here.

Barker’s humour invests in small things: rural post offices, dwarf rabbits, surprise bee stings and inflamed buttocks (the buttocks, which belong to Mr Huff, have sealed together as a result of an excessively long walk to a monastery). The slapstick is of the Wodehousian variety but the inexhaustible exuberance of the sentences is entirely Barker’s own. It is impossible not to like her brand of British farce, with its bicycle accidents, overweight dogs and fatally over-tight sweaters. She gives us what we yearn for most – nostalgia.

Despite the representation of a warmer world and the homage to beloved humorists such as Chaucer, Jane Austen and Kingsley Amis, In the Approaches is a little like white-water rafting. The writing begins in full flow and maintains its buoyancy to the final word, even after navigating its way through a wildly precarious plot with a cargo of leaky characters.

Barker is less interested in her storyline than in practical jokes. The smell in Mr Huff’s cottage is caused by a rotting shark beneath his bed (put there by Miss Hahn, because he said her dog was fat); Miss Hahn’s bungalow breaks in half and falls into the sea (a fate predicted by Mr Huff, while they sat in her creaking sauna); wrongly assuming that her fat dog is dead, Miss Hahn buries him. He digs his way out of his grave and then dies anyway.

Weirdness is the currency but where the book gets seriously strange is in the miracle-performing Christianity of the missing Orla Nor, whose death in 1971 is at the heart of the story. At this point, to continue the white-water rafting metaphor, Barker loses her firm grip on the journey. The eccen­tricity of the project becomes mawkish. No one can think of Orla without weeping. Miss Hahn, employed by Bran to prevent his daughter from praying obsessively, is inconsolable when she remembers how the child’s arms were too short to allow her to place her hands together.

A shrine to Orla, festooned with teddy bears, suddenly blooms with flowers; eucalyptus – Orla’s favourite smell – can be sniffed everywhere; the pattern on Orla’s possum-skin coat is believed to contain the secrets of the universe; Orla’s divine mission on earth is seriously discussed by scientifically minded people; Mr Huff sees the spirit of love shining – literally shining – through a hole in Miss Hahn’s breast. Is Orla Nor going to pop up in a monologue of her own to complain at her treatment?

The book, like Miss Hahn’s bungalow, is built on a fault line. In the Approaches, which begins with some of the funniest writing I have read in years, ends in a crescendo of mystical visions that may conform to the farcical anti-realism of the whole, or may be quite serious in their invitation to join the Virgin Mary. Are we in the realms of authorial high jinks, or have we moved to High Church? Perhaps Clifford Bickerton knows what’s going on. Answer me, cow author!

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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In Kid Gloves, Knausgaardian style provides a route through a writer's grief

Adam Mars-Jones has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism