BOOK REVIEW / Layla's name of the nose: 'Love your Enemies' - Nicola Barker: Faber, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
YOU DON'T have to go far to find yourself in Nicola Barker territory. A quick scan of the women's magazines on a newsagent's shelf is enough. There, cluttering the flawless features of the models on the covers, are headlines as loud and crowded as flysheets on a vacant window: 'Improve Your Looks', 'Breaking Up', 'Sex in Weird Places', 'Female Masturbation'. These are the popular preoccupations which Nicola Barker takes and picks apart, with macabre humour, in her first collection of short stories.

The opening tale, 'Layla's Nose Job', is one of the wittiest and most pointed. Barker astutely articulates a teenage girl's spiralling obsession as she tries to come to terms with her huge proboscis in the face of her classmates' cruel jibes. Parents and teachers are bemused or just embarrassed by the problem of Layla's nose, and their feeble advice only demonstrates that they can't see further than the end of their own. Layla finally seeks help from a cosmetic surgeon, a small, balding man with a 'beautiful' (snipped and tucked) wife. But even after the operation, Layla's troubles are not over - like an anorexic, she can no longer see clearly what the mirror is showing her.

There is a final twist in this and many of the other tales. Like Roald Dahl, Barker can take a commonplace situation - cooking a meal, starting a diet, taking in a stray - and use it to bounce off into a surreal fantasy world. Unlike Dahl, though, these stories do not have the impression of having been written backwards: there is not necessarily a pay-off. Barker revels in ambiguities, and more often than not her stories end hanging in mid- air, with the real fun to be found in the preceding machinations.

Notes on the dustjacket describe these 10 stories as being 'about people trying to find beauty in adverse circumstances' which seems perverse, for Barker delights in describing, often in lurid detail, such grotesqueries as parasitic maggots, urine drinking or the shuddering of cancerous flesh.

A good example of her monstrous imagination is the story of a young woman who, rejected by her boyfriend for being overweight, discovers a mutually beneficial relationship with a tapeworm she has ingested. It's a wonderfully ironic and practical solution to a literally consuming problem.

But Nicola Barker's skill is in identifying the subtle shifts of power within situations or relationships. Even on the most mundane level there is wit and insight in her observations. In 'Skin', Jane, a rather severe character, ponders how best to behave while waiting alone in a pub: don't read a magazine - it looks promiscuous and disposable, as opposed to the indispensability of a book; and don't appear detached, but look towards the doors as people come in - it indicates that you're expecting company and wards off unwelcome attention. Above all, these stories are about recognising the mechanisms of obsession and oppression. Nicola Barker can love her enemies because she understands how they operate.

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