BOOK REVIEW / A happy family, toenails and all: Come and tell me some lies - Rafaella Barker: Hamish Hamilton, pounds 14.99

THERE IS nothing about this book to suggest that it really is a novel, and not simply autobiography. It portrays the kind of toenails-and-all family you hate, love, and learn to live with, not the kind you invent. The detail is so true to itself, the memories so specifically personal, that if this is fiction then the medium has been rendered altogether transparent.

It tells the story of the rambling, bohemian family of a poet, living in a damp and freezing house in Norfolk, with books, children and animals tumbling out of every corner. Viewed with suspicion by the locals ever since the day when their Doberman roamed the village dressed in red lacy camiknickers, the many offspring live blissfully unconcerned by public opinion until they begin to go to school and meet 'children who lived in warm houses with carpets'. The regime and order of school suddenly begins to show up the chaos of home.

The small good moments and the awful, baggy bad times succeed each other in Rafaella Barker's brief, episodic format, tracking the high and low points which stand out in the collective family memory: a trip to the coast, a fall from a horse, midnight marital rows. Two separate narrative standpoints are employed, a first-person account by the eldest daughter, and a third-person voice which picks up from the time the parents first meet, thus accessing the history which lies beyond the direct reach of the narrator herself. The two time-scales converge at the point of the father's death.

The author's evocation of childhood displays a sure handling of detail: the obsessions, the first and second-best bunnies, the favourite, ghastly garments. She is particularly good on those writhing moments of shame which of all memories stand out so ineradicably, such as arriving at a party, aged 15, in what is clearly the Wrong Dress. Such events leave the narrator in misery, 'washed up on a dirty shore of embarrassment'.

The sum of these parts is a witty, likeable family portrait which could have been affected, but isn't, save for a somewhat fey opening passage about angels and contessas. The book's strength lies in its honesty, an attribute forcibly acquired from life in large families where one's faults are continually aired in public. It is also faithful to it's own borders: it doesn't try to go beyond itself, a good quality for a first novel - or indeed for a first autobiography.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

    Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

    After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
    The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
    10 best sun creams for kids

    10 best sun creams for kids

    Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin