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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.

A view of the Seven Sisters cliffs from Cuckmere Haven, East Sussex, 1950s. Photo: Getty
A view of the Seven Sisters cliffs from Cuckmere Haven, East Sussex, 1950s. Photo: Getty

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!