With her cast of extravagant characters, a refusal to be tied down to anything as parochial as a traditional plot or narrative arc, near-farcical humour and big ideas, Nicola Barker is an author who transforms the mundane into the magisterial.
Her 10th novel, In the Approaches, is no exception.
Set in the picturesque East Sussex community of Pett Level in 1984, the final instalment of her loosely connected “digital trilogy” (begun with The Burley Cross Postbox Theft and continued in her Man Booker Prize long-listed The Yips) brings together Catholic theology, ancient Aboriginal symbols and the modern physics of the dawning internet age. Sounds a bit heavy going? Fear not, it’s also a delightful romantic comedy.
The residents of Pett Level are gossiping about Mr Franklin D. Huff, the “bold and cosmopolitan” visitor from Mexico who’s rented Mulberry Cottage. Huff, however, is no ordinary vacationer, rather he’s been coerced into the pursuit of a story so full of “jagged rocks” its casualty list is high.
Thirteen years earlier, in 1971, Mulberry Cottage was home to the controversial, though not necessarily radical, Irish muralist Bran Cleary, his promiscuous half-Aboriginal wife Kalinda “Lonely” Allaway, and their daughter Orla Nor, a Thalidomide child beset by ill health and religious visions. Soon after Orla dies – the shrine erected to her in the cottage’s garden still attracting a regular stream of pilgrims – Kalinda disappears, and Bran is killed by a bomb nestling in the boot of his car, though whether planted, being stored there, or transported by Bran himself, nobody knows.
Photographer Kimberly Couzens, Bran’s mistress and wife of a certain Mr Huff, is also gravely injured in the blast, but now she’s publishing a book of images of the family taken that fateful summer. Unable to travel herself, she’s sent her husband back to the cottage, now owned by Orla’s one-time nurse, Carla Hahn. “Try to reach out to the people who were there – on the periphery, in the background,” Couzens instructs Huff. “It doesn’t have to be the final word or anything, just a … I don’t know … a cut and paste job … a kind of collage, a human collage.”
So begins a strange dance between Huff and Hahn, the other locals orbiting closely, though quite where it will end, no one is sure, perhaps not even the author. What they need more than anything else, it seems, is faith.
Despite its provincial setting, with In the Approaches Barker has created her own “human collage” of epic proportions. More than the mere sum of its parts, it’s a novel that propels you helplessly forward into the light.
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