Nicola Barker enjoys living life on the edge – literally. Thanks to construction works in Wapping, her east London apartment has suddenly been exposed to the outside world, after the building next door was demolished. “They tore down the wall between us and them. We have this plasterboard between us and the elements.”
Seeking refuge from the constant drilling, 48 year-old Barker and her partner – the music journalist and ghost writer Ben Thompson – decided to buy a home near Hastings. “We kept looking at all these houses that were about to fall into the sea, because I love sea views. They were beautiful cottages, but on a cliff. If there was heavy flooding then the likelihood of the house collapsing was very high. It didn’t bother me. I was excited at the prospect of the danger. All that money falling into the sea.”
A vertiginous sense of teetering on the edge of things could describe Barker’s mind-spinning new novel, In the Approaches. Set in an obscure Sussex village in 1984, it avoids narrating the story of a young girl who may be a living saint in favour of the people whose lives she changes. There is all manner of outsider strangeness: a landslip, a talking parrot engaged in internecine war with a mynah bird, a dead shark under a bed, the birth of the internet, a spiritual screwball comedy, and a minor character in furious argument with a “cow Author” – a dead ringer for Barker herself.
“This book is not about the interesting, fascinating story. That would be too easy. It is about people who are affected by a story but who feel insignificant. It is about being in a place that is not anywhere in particular, about not being the person who is the main event.”
In the Approaches is marginal in other ways. Amazingly for a 500-page tour de force of dramatic monologues, it is, Barker says, a minor book that is a subsidiary of a larger work-in-progress. “They always interrupt a longer third person narrative which I am getting stuck on. Often it will be related to ideas in the bigger book that I can investigate more closely. I feel a spirit of mischief.”
Life on the periphery – toppling sometimes toward the centre of things but just as often spinning off into the universe – is very Nicola Barker. You only need to glimpse at her Amazon ratings to see how her unbridled, experimental novels like The Yips and her masterpiece Darkmans, separate the fanatics from the detractors. “I think this book might divide people, but I’m OK with that. As a writer, death is consensus. When you see the things that everybody likes …” Barker sighs, before laughing. “I am happy to confound people.”
We talk in a large, deserted Thameside pub close to her Wapping flat. I have honestly never interviewed anyone quite like Barker. She is intense and funny, but also acerbic and refreshingly unguarded. A discussion about representing spirituality in the modern age inspires an exasperated assault on Philip Pullman’s fiction.
“Who’s the guy, whose name I never remember, who writes the anti-religious books, who’s so popular?” she asks. “To me, it’s like he’s the anti-Christ. Don’t teach children not to believe in goodness before they believe in goodness.” Barker pauses. “I have never read his work, so what do I know? But I just have a suspicion about it. I was a very spiritual child and the idea of that being taken away by fiction makes me very sad.”
As this suggests, Barker doesn’t really do small-talk. Our real-estate banter leads quickly into a disarmingly frank unpicking of Barker’s “lively” dream life which is filled with floods, dilapidated houses, and a feeling of “inundation”. Barker traces this mood of claustrophobic vulnerability to her formative years when her parents left England and settled in South Africa.
“I think it all comes from having emigrated from an island to a great continent. When I lived in Africa it was a very uncontrolled phase in my life. I looked back to an island as a psychological retreat. Perhaps fiction itself is a little island, a little safe place.”
Literature as sanctuary is reflected by a composition process that is famously intense and immersive. “When I am finishing a really big book, it does take over my whole life. With Darkmans that process was two years. It is an all-encroaching world of language and of characters you invented to entertain yourself. It is quite self-indulgent. You think you are suffering terribly, but afterwards you think, I really enjoyed that phase and I just didn’t want to see anyone.”
Something of the visionary hermit lingers around Barker, whose devotion to her work removes her from the everyday, who craves communion with her imagination that is direct and unmediated. “Mystery is everything to me. I don’t like to have everything analysed, torn apart and put back together again in terms of the construction of fiction. Even if I am just the sum of my influences, I like to pretend that I live in a world which is me being creative.”
This empathy with the ineffable has strange if explicable origins. A severe bout of bronchial pneumonia as a child damaged the pineal gland. “The cone in the centre of the brain which controls life and death, waking and sleeping. Descartes calls it the seat of the soul.” In the short term, the illness led to fits. In the long term, it left Barker with no sense of direction (“Don’t put me in a car”) and a bizarre sleep disorder.
“In the period between waking and sleeping, I sometimes suffer miniature deaths. I stop breathing and my body dies. Or the mind wakes up and the body is completely dead. The thing I get mainly is hallucinations.” These include a giant spider, a ceiling of “compressed water” and geometric patterns.
One side-effect is that Barker, who has no clear-cut religious faith, nevertheless feels a powerful connection to mystical worlds. “The movement between spirituality and everyday life is more fluid for me. It is not as strange for me as it is for other people.” Another consequence is that she has no fear of death. “I have woken up and have been breathing out my final breath – the deepest exhalation when you feel the air going of your entire body. I have had the utter sense that it was my last breath. The fear then is of wanting to be alive. But the actual exhalation is of great joy and relief.”
Barker is craving the joy and relief of plunging back into her latest all-consuming magnum opus, a “very dark, late Victorian story that is based on a real”. She pauses. “But who knows at this stage?” While her friends should prepare for months, if not years of going straight to voicemail, Barker herself is cheerfully resigned to her fate.
“It’s just silliness. I like to take the work seriously, but by and large I don’t take anything I do seriously. I am just a person that writes books.”
Extract: In the Approaches, by Nicola barker (4th Estate, £18.99)
‘The subject of your book – the book. Everything else – the parrot, the landslip, this – it’s all just incidental detail, surely? Just filler. I mean, I can’t speak for you, obviously, but I know I’m totally insignificant – just a minor character, a handy plot device. That’s it.’
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