Books: Hang on a minute...

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WIDE OPEN by Nicola Barker Faber pounds 12.99

WRITING ABOUT Nicola Barker's new novel is problematic in that any attempt to give an idea of the plot makes her out to be a madwoman. Try this: Jim is really Ronny, and Ronny isn't of course actually Ronny at all but just pretending to be. Nathan is Ronny's, make that Jim's, brother and Connie's just turned up with letters to Ronny from Monica. But then Connie thinks that Ronny is Ronny and not Jim. And Monica doesn't really exist. And this is even before we've got to Lily, Sara, Luke and the rampaging wild boar.

Wide Open is, conversely, so hermetically sealed that it is impossible to pull out any generalisations. Its extreme strangeness is self-perpetuating and entirely self-referential. We are drip-fed unaccountable information: that black rabbits are a local peculiarity in Sheppey, that pigs are prone to terrible sunburn, that in Sumatra there is a man-like ape whose feet turn inwards and "the threat of discovery terrified him". This is not to accuse Barker of opacity or impermeability. The book's world is so perfectly sustained by her devilish inventiveness and her laconic, throwaway style that while absorbed in it, it seems utterly acceptable to think to yourself, "Okay, the haemophiliac teenager is going to kill her mother's chicken as a sacrifice to the mutant piglet she worships," or "I see, he's sawn off his big toes to be like that undiscovered rainforest ape Monica's looking for." It's only when you shut the book, resurface and look about that your brain begins to whisper, quietly at first, "Hang on a minute ..."

Her sharp sense of setting and lengthy spats of dialogue make me wonder if she's headed for the movies, which would be a shame only because we'd miss out on her physical descriptions. These are unexpectedly specific and she twists conceits and metaphors into unheard-of images: the alopecia- sufferer Jim "resembled a king prawn, fully processed; legs gone, shell gone, ready for serving, soft and pink and pale and smooth"; seeing Ronny eat with his mouth open "was like watching the interior of an inefficient Hotpoint struggling with its fast-coloured programme".

It is more character-driven than her other books, and bleaker. Barker is concerned with society's misfits: bludgeoning, strident, stroppy women and bemused men with egos like eggshells - the kind of people whose eyes you'd avoid on public transport. The book's impetus is the reconciliation of estranged brothers, Nathan and Jim. The proverbial six degrees of human separation seems to be reduced to around three in Barker's story of enmeshed loners. Coin-cidence and synchronicity, centering on the London Transport Lost Property Office, assembles all players at the flat, wide, "moonscape" of Sheppey, bringing the brothers face to face with each other again after 10 years. Everyone is, in different ways, adjusting to some private tragedy in their past, and as a consequence are sealed up tight with unarticulated pain. It is the enigmatic, childlike Ronny, "ludicrously pliant and tractable ... wide, wide open", who manages to ease their predicament. Despite Barker's evident delight in the ludicrous - skinnydipping in the rain, a pornographer who thinks he's dying of a seed-sized gallstone, a woman masturbating in a bird-hide - a deep artery of tragedy pulses through the book, and Nathan and Jim's secret is delivered like a level punch in the solar plexus.

Wide Open is a unique and idiosyncratic move forward from Heading Inland and Small Holdings. She has been compared to Amis and Barnes, but this is reductive. Wide Open establishes her as one of the most interesting writers in Britain, at once funny and moving, irreverent and profound. It proves she is like no one but herself.