Darkmans by Nicola Barker is the most modern novel I have ever read.
I was set up to be unimpressed. Its a brick of a novel - at 838 pages my paperback copy weighs in at more than 2.5 lbs. In addition to its doorstop quality, the novel is published in a sans serif font and is littered with bolding and italics - two things that generally drive me nuts. Furthermore, Barker's use of large spacing to denote inner thoughts of her main characters took me several hundred pages to get used to - and all that empty space contributed to the large size of the final product.
I thought it would be a chore to read, and I had already given myself permission not to finish if I couldn't make it through before my library check out expired. But about 300 pages in, I began to have a hard time putting it down. By the end I was actually disappointed that it wasn't even longer.
The novel follows seven main characters, all loosely connected and living in Ashford, England at one end of the new Channel Tunnel. The book opens with Daniel Beede, a man who had originally petitioned for the location of the Channel Tunnel, but when the plans called for the destruction of a historic property his support turned to protest. His failure to halt the construction haunts him daily.
There was an ugly scuffle. But he saw it! He stood and watched -- three men struggled to restrain him -- he stood and watched -- jaw slack, mouth wide, gasping -- as History was unceremoniously gutted and steam-rolled. He saw History die --
NO!Kane, Beede's son is also haunted by history, as he flashes back to his mother's slow wasting death while he, a teenager, acted as her sole caretaker. In their own ways, each of the other major characters carries the weight of their history on their shoulders, and each are also plagued by the kind of modernity symbolized by the Channel Tunnel. There's Isidore, an apparently mentally ill security officer, his wife Elen, a chiropodist, and their autistic son Fleet; Kelly Broad, Kane's teenage ex girlfriend; and Gaffar, a Kurdish immigrant who acts as personal assistant to Kane in his dealing of prescription drugs.
You're killing History!
Kane, Beede, Dory, Elen, Fleet, Kelly and Gaffar are all to varying degrees also haunted or inhabited by something more insidious - the Darkmans. Is the Darkmans the spirit of John Scoggin, a jester to the court of Henry VIII? Is it perhaps the small angry bird Phlegein?
Or are these characters each falling prey to their own mental weaknesses and driven by History. Perhaps the Darkmans is just a manifestation of their various schizophrenia, autism, drug use, etc. Or maybe Elen, who appears to be at the center of all of this, is actually causing these possessions or hallucinations. I spent the better part of this novel wondering if something supernatural was actually occurring, and I'm not sure I have a conclusion.
The past keeps piling up. Yes. But that's only normal, surely? Sometimes I wonder if I am the only one who sees it, if I am the only one who sees the same tree -- the same old book, the same wall, the same piece of road -- as thousands of eyes have seen it before, and who feels the weight, the terrible weight -- the actual weight -- of all this apprehension. As if I am the only one who feels history, who sees the atom of pure emotion raging away behind everything. The buzz and clash of the atom. This awful friction. This urge to truth. This urge to destruction. This urge to vengeance. Oh God! Where does it flow from? Why? For what?! And how much longer can I possibly be expected to hold it all back?Her imagery is immediate and visceral; the characters, eclectic and engaging; the plot, haunting. It's a book I'll be thinking about for weeks to come.
As an afterthought, this is the third novel I have read that was nominated for the 2007 Booker prize - and each of these have been truly fantastic. It must have been a very hard choice for the committee, and I'm torn about whether I would have picked this one, or Animal's People. The Committee chose The Gathering, which was also excellent, but perhaps predictably resembles many other past winners in ways that neither Darkmans nor Animal's People did.