Book Group: Ciar Byrne reviews 'Clear' by Nicola Barker

Witty snapshot misses the mark
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The Independent Culture

At 28, MacKenny, a clerical assistant, has exchanged his ordinary Herefordshire upbringing for an über-cool combo of Marc Jacobs togs, Adidas Indoor Super trainers and obligatory iPod. A self-confessed "boy whore", he has also realised that the best place in the capital to pull girls is the Thames embankment beside Tower Bridge, where crowds gather each day to gaze upon illusionist David Blaine, suspended in a Perspex box with no visible means of sustenance.

The New York magician is not so much the backdrop to the novel as its slowly withering vital organ. The cast of wannabe intellectual heavyweights draw parallels between Blaine, Kafka and Primo Levi. Having invested so heavily in the spectacle, Barker is savage about Blaine's detractors, but makes no allowance for those that found his stunt simply tedious.

Her real skill lies in creating characters that conjure up the decadent individualism of London in the Noughties. MacKenny's shallow existence is shaken when he meets Aphra, a bizarrely attractive thirtysomething migraine sufferer with an overdeveloped sense of smell, who carries around Tupperware boxes filled with exquisite home-cooked food, and who owns a collection of antique shoes.

Then there is MacKenny's housemate, Solomon, a glamorous Ghanaian urban philosopher, who keeps three Doberman dogs and sees the rapper Dizzee Rascal as the embodiment of the black man's struggle.

Barker's writing is undoubtedly arresting. But in placing Blaine at the centre of her witty riff on the metropolis, the author raises the same questions as his screwy magic tricks. Do they have any lasting value, or are they momentary illusions?

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