The hip, the square and the crazy trip over their pasts and each other in this boisterous latest from Barker (Clear, 2005, etc.), a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.
The primary focus of the novel, set in Ashford, England, near the Channel Tunnel, is on two families. There is a father, Beede, and his son, Kane. Kane is a cool prescription-drug dealer. Beede is stuffy, civic-minded and pedantic; he supervises a hospital laundry. They tolerate each other warily; their one great crisis occurred when Kane’s mother (Beede’s divorced wife) died painfully after a botched suicide attempt. The other family consists of Isidore (or Dory), his wife, Elen, and their five-year-old son, Fleet. Dory, who pretends to be German, is a mess, narcoleptic and paranoid. He suffers dangerous “episodes” of which he has no memory. At times he is possessed by a medieval jester called John, who once burned down a barn with people inside. Little Fleet is weird too (he knows about John). The sane one is Elen, who radiates calm and commonsense. She’s a podiatrist who has treated Beede and Kane and is the link between the families. There is a third family, the Broads, a collection of lowlifes. Foremost among them is punk, anorexic Kelly; she has a big mouth but a good heart. The novel generates heat but no light. The hijinks (searching in a haunted forest for Dory, for example) are enhanced by playful typography and counterpointed by erudite riffs on, among other things, similarities between the medieval and modern worlds. The past weighs heavily, even on the Broads. The questions pile up but go unanswered; projected climaxes (a rooftop encounter between Dory and John) fizzle out. As in her previous work, Barker is still seductive, idiosyncratic and infuriating. “Everything is arbitrary” says a character who is the designated truth-teller. That’s quite a cop-out.
If you go with the flow and reconcile yourself to the lack of plot, you’ll find plenty to enjoy.