Ah, the joys of uni holidays. Even though I had a stupidly large amount of work to do in the last two weeks, I have done almost none of it. My bad. And I even had English novels to be reading. Which is why I ended up reading this one instead. Someone recommended it to me, and when I saw it come into work, I decided that this would be much better reading than anything the academic world had to offer.
Ashford is a new city on the edge of England. Full of concrete, bypasses and all the mod cons, everyone who inhabits this city is very much a product of its history. Beede, the environmental activist who has lost steam; his son, Kane, who deals illegal painkillers to those in need; Elen, the podiatrist married to a man, Dory, who is, at the very least, schizophrenic, with their six year old son, Fleet, who is highly precocious. When something that appears to be the spirit of a 15th century court jester begins to take control of Dory, each of these lives slowly draws together, and drags everyone around them down with it.
It’s always so refreshing to read something different and exciting. And that’s exactly what this book is. Even though it’s a beast of a book (more than 800 pages!), it takes no longer to read than any other average sized paperback. Partially, I suspect, because a large number of page have very little written on them, but also because Barker is just such an easy author to read. Her novel is filled with pop culture references that will require future editions to be laden with footnotes explaining who Miles Davis is, and what a Nokia does, but I’m ok with that. It really feels like a book of its time, and captures life in these new, postmodern towns so perfectly. Only time will tell whether or not this will make the book unreadable in future years. For now, though, it’s a brilliant way of talking about what Barker wants to talk about.
Which is not ghosts, even though the blurb will try to tell you otherwise. Yes, there is a certain amount of ghost activity, but when you finally reach the end of the novel, that’s not the part that matters. In fact, Barker’s ending suggests that perhaps the ghost didn’t even exist. Almost. I’ll leave you to work that one out. Barker is far more concerned with relationships, and how the happenings and coincidences of everyday life affect the way we interact with the people around us. Each and every character in this book seems to be inextricably connected, so by the end, you think that something bigger must be behind everything. But when nothing is revealed, it all beings to make sense. Perhaps this big, globalised world is much smaller than we think – or, at the very least, each small city contained therein is actually just a big, fractured family. Indeed, the novel ends in a traffic jam, where all the characters are stuck within the same kilometre radius of a burning house (that also belongs to another main character), and are forced to confront people they perhaps didn’t want to talk to. And if you are looking for answers to the plot questions that Barker raises, don’t hold your breath waiting for answers. They’re not spelled out for you. Though, one small, insignificant bit of dialogue does actually answer the entire book, so watch out for it. Mind you, once you start reading said dialogue, everything falls into place, and the book is brilliant.
For all the boldness and brashness this novel gives off before you open it, it is a surprisingly tight and restrained affair. Granted, there are some scenes of absolute insanity, but they fit perfectly in the world that Barker is trying to evoke – new, concrete cities that have popped up out of necessity in a world that is becoming increasingly dependent on roadways and communication. Inhabited within are not bleak, lifeless humans, but people that are simply struggling to keep their heads above water in the insanity and difference that these areas create and sustain. Go and read this book now – it really is very good.