Poppyland, by Raffaella Barker

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Raffaella Barker is best known for engaging domestic dramas set in the Norfolk countryside. Her eighth novel, named after a stretch of coast romanticised by the Victorians, is a love story as plangent as its setting. It opens with a brief encounter. Grace, an English artist, is in Copenhagen for the opening of her first solo show. Escaping to the docks, she falls into conversation with Ryder, a "handsome and rugged" stranger. The attraction is immediate, but Grace is called back to the party, and Ryder, a marine engineer, returns to his ship.

The ripple effect of this chance meeting is long-lasting. Grace returns to her studio in New York where she's galvanised to pull the plug on a relationship like "sitting in the bath too long"; Ryder splits up with his girlfriend - the latest in a long line of jilted women. More significantly, Grace is persuaded by her sister, Lucy, to return to her Norfolk childhood home.

Like many novelists, Barker is a therapist manqué, and there is much clued-up analysis of Grace and Ryder's psychological states. Both have been undone by loss: Grace is still reeling from the recent death of her mother; Ryder has never recovered from his sister's accidental death. Both are terrified of facing middle-age alone. Stop whinging and pick up the phone, is Lucy's advice. But we have to wait another five years for the tortured twosome to get in touch.

Marrying chick-lit cliché with evocative writing, Barker is a hard writer to classify. A signed-up member of the Esther Freud school of hard knocks, she is particularly good at capturing the wear and tear of a bohemian childhood. Grace, we are brought to understand, raised in domestic chaos by a distrait single mother, has never got over being abandoned by her artistic father. Norfolk – an inescapable presence – is the lodestone that finally draws everyone home. It won't spoil the ending to say that Grace and Ryder are thrown back together by an invitation to a rural christening. A romantic novelist of the old school, Barker still believes in tall, dark, handsome strangers and love at first sight.