If I loved this book any more than I do, I would be writing this review in green crayon and posting it directly to the author. I would draw the stamps. Nicola Barker, facing left, in a crown made of quills and typewriters. I would have one of the shorter chapters badly translated into Chinese characters and tattooed onto my arm as a display of affection. I would change my name to In the Approaches Judge. I would abandon my family, retire, move to Shetland, breed some obscure variant of goat with a coat and temperament suited to the subarctic climate. I would knit abrasive garments from their wool and wear them as I read and re-read In the Approaches, scratching and weeping, weeping and scratching, weeping at the splendour and glory of Nicola Barker’s sentences.
Where to start?
I should admit, confess perhaps, that I decided some time ago that Nicola Barker is the finest writer of her generation, and of this century, and probably of the last one too. In the Approaches is among her finest work but if you have read her work before and decided she isn’t for you, I’m not going to pretend this will change your mind. You are wrong, obviously, but hey ho, you are dead to me anyway so let’s not squabble about it.
Barker makes fiction dance. Her prose is like nobody else’s. It is effervescent. She is the anti-Hemmingway. The exception that tests every rule of writing. She understands better than anyone that fiction is a game, and that games are intended to be played, not won. That quests for ‘truth’ in fiction are nonsensical when the only truth of life is that nothing can ever be proven to be definitively true. If you have any set ideas about what the novel ‘should’ do, then Barker may not be your cup of tea because nobody else does, or ever has done, what she does.
Like most of Barker’s fiction, In the Approaches is populated by crackpots and outsiders. It is, essentially, a love story between Mr Franklin D Huff, a journalist writing a book about Orla Nor Cleary, a long dead sickly girl and the cult that surrounded her, and Miss Carla Hahn, his landlady and Orla’s one-time nurse. But the romance is both preordained (the sinister influence of the author on her characters being much discussed by Miss Hahn’s former sweetheart in chapter’s that cleverly, and hilariously, undermine the entire narative) and impossible (as the characters don’t actually like each other). It would take a PhD thesis to show how despite Barker’s games the reader still cares about the relationship between Mr Huff and Miss Hahn, still wants them to get together, but-
I’m babbling aren’t I? I know I am. I can’t help it. Green crayon.
There is the story and the telling and Barker does both better than anyone. In the Approaches is fabulous. This stopped being a review and started becoming a fan letter so long ago. I should make my excuses and leave quietly. I am in awe and so I babble.
Any Cop?: Book of the year.