In this first installment of a Christian allegory, a husband and wife cope with their mercurial god.
Auckridge’s ambitious fiction debut opens with two seeds, the Mustard Seed and Barleycorn, buried in the ground. The Mustard Seed becomes bored so Barleycorn offers to tell a story to pass the time. That tale’s twists and turns constitute the rest of the author’s text (interrupted only momentarily, and charmingly, by Mustard Seed’s emotional outbursts, always quieted by Barleycorn). The story centers on three characters: a husband and wife, Eliakim and Anne, and their god, Luminous, and the plot, such as it is, starts with the trio in conflict. Eliakim and Anne are hiding because Luminous is determined to kill them in what seems to be an old cycle (“We beg and then you give,” Anne tells him. “You give and then you take it back”). Through a rapid-fire and seemingly random sequence of temporary deaths and transformations (into various animals and shapes as well as simple reincarnations of themselves), the trio moves forward from adventure to adventure, meeting an array of creatures and supernatural beings and experiencing one version of the world after another. Eventually time seems to pass, and among the additional characters who amble in and out of the story (including talking boulders and chains as well as Adam and Eve), is the son of Luminous.
The prose throughout is wonderfully lean and fast-paced. But there’s only so much that briskly paced dialogue and exposition can do to alleviate the narrative burden that starts accumulating almost from the first page of this series opener. This is the besetting problem of religious allegories: they’re essentially coded texts and their decryption keys aren’t provided. The keys are found in separate texts, in this case the literature of Christianity. Readers extensively steeped in that canon will perhaps be able to make sense of the long story Barleycorn tells. Other readers will likely find the intricate tale almost completely impenetrable, with characters dying, transforming, and talking to each other in hints and allusions. For example, when late in the book Luminous attacks his son, he encases him in a talking iceberg. “I’ll melt you, my father,” the son says. The iceberg answers: “And I will rebuild myself again.” “I will be melting you forever,” the son responds. Here, as everywhere else in the novel, there’s the feeling that the characters are speaking in a secret language that readers either recognize or don’t. The characters themselves are never fleshed out, and the dialogue between them makes very little sense on its face but feels as if it’s trembling with deep meaning for those who know the encryption code. Since Anne, Eliakim, and Luminous bear the main weight of the tale, and all three are mostly incomprehensible and unchanging as well as immortal, they possess no elements of drama and therefore give uninitiated readers very little to grab onto.
A lively and elaborate but deeply enigmatic religious allegory.