The Yips, by Nicola Barker

Purchased from the Book Depository

If there is a contemporary author who offers a reviewer more challenges than Nicola Barker, I have no idea who he or she is. The two novels of hers that I have read — Darkmans and Behindlings — came before I started blogging but I did think while reading both “how on earth would you descibe this to anyone?” With Booker-longlisted The Yips now read, the time has come for KfC to face the challenge.

Let me quote from the opening pages to provide a set-up:

Stuart Ransom, professional golfer, is drunkenly reeling off an interminable series of stats about the woman’s game in Korea (or the Ladies Game, as he is determined to have it): ‘Don’t scowl at me, beautiful…!’ — directed, with his trademark Yorkshire twinkle, at Jen, who lounges, sullenly, behind the hotel bar. ‘They like to be called ladies. In fact they demand it. I mean …’ Ransom lobs a well-aimed peanut at her — she ducks — and it strikes a lovely, clear note against a Gordon’s Gin bottle. ‘…they are ladies, for Christsakes!’

[A descriptive paragraph follows explaining that this is happening at the Thistle, "a clean but generic" hotel, in Luton just past midnight and that Ransom is the only customer in the bar.]

‘But why did you change your booking from the Leaside?’ Jen petulantly demands (as she fishes the stray peanut from its current hidey-hole between the Wild Turkey and the Kahlua). ‘The Leaside’s pure class.’

[Another descriptive paragraph on how Ransom finds the voluptuous, nineteen-year-old Jen attractive -- her curves evoking images in "the keen yet dispassionate eyes of a man who has oft pitted his talents against the merciless dips and mounds of the Old Course at St Andrews".]

‘I’d give anything to stay at the Leaside,’ Jen persists, gazing dreamily up at the light-fitment (where three stray midges are joyriding, frenetically, around the bulb). ‘The Leaside’s so quaint — perched on its own little hill, right in the heart of town, but just out of all the hubbub…’

Jen’s pierced tongue trips on the word hubbub and she frowns –

Hubbub?

So let’s start with the conventional aspects of Barber. Her novels do have a storyline and a straight-forward timeline — all 550 pages of The Yips take place in Luton over a period of a few weeks. But it would be misleading to call that storyline a “plot”; it is much more a common “direction” that affects the characters. While they all experience the same external events, they spin off from them in wildly different responses — the novel is not about what happens, but to whom it happens and how each responds.

And, still reasonably conventional, the novel features a number of central characters. Ransom and Jen will soon be joined by Gene, the bartender, who has successfully survived one, seven or ten attacks of terminal cancer depending on whose version you believe (the question “how can it be terminal if he survived?” does get asked, but not for a long while yet) — ambiguity or exaggeration is present in virtually all aspects of the book. And through another of Gene’s jobs (reading electric meters) we will meet Valentine, an agoraphobic tattoo artist with a peculiar specialty: she supplies clients (mainly Japanese women) who have no pubic hair with an ultra-real tattooed version.

Those four will be joined by a few others as “central” characters and that begins opening the Pandora’s box of the Barker challenge because, while the “central” characters do interact, they each have their own set of acquaintances (Ransom’s, for example, includes an entourage of an ex-manager, a current manager, a faithful supporter and a journalist, among others) whom the author gives full-scale treatment. The eventual cast involves a couple score of people (it is a good thing Barker doesn’t write plays because no theatre company could afford to cast the whole group) — “quirky” is as close as any of them gets to normal, “pleasantly absurd” would be the adjective that fits most, “outrageous” a few.

And then there’s the “dialogue” of the book which the excerpt I have quoted illustrates. I put “dialogue” in quotes because Barker’s characters don’t talk with each other, they talk at each other. They are all talkers but their notion of conversation is more thinking out loud than anything else (as Ransom’s thoughts on woman golfers demanding to be known as “ladies” show) and the only listening they do is to pick up a riff that sends them off on another tangent (see Jen’s musings about the attractions of the Leaside).

Barker seasons all this with some of the most elaborate punctuation imaginable — ellipses, italics, brackets, commas, exclamation marks as again shown in the excerpt and that is only a start — and seemingly trivial details (Gordon’s Gin, Wild Turkey and Kahlua bottles; joyriding midges on the light fitment; the topography of the Old Course), versions of which are included in virtually every conversation or monologue competition or whatever best describes the narrative.

And finally, as is true of most thinking out loud, those details are present only in that particular exchange — it is no spoiler to say that the issue of “lady” golfers never again shows up, for example. Slowly but surely, the reader needs to become accustomed to the reality that every section of the narrative (they tend to come every five pages or so) will involve a wealth of details, some relevant, some totally extraneous.

So how did all this land? For this reader, my response to The Yips was very similar to my response to both Darkmans and Behindlings:

– for the first 150 pages, I was completely enrolled. The author makes all of her central characters (and most of the subsidiary ones) three-dimensional. And the set pieces, with all those details, are cleverly developed and genuinely amusing — Mrs. KfC said from across the room that I seemed to be smirking throughout this opening third of the book.

– Barker does such a good job of character development in the opening third, in fact, that doubts start to set in in the next 150 pages. While the situations tend to become even more absurd, the reader (at least this one) understands the characters so well that their response to increasingly weirder events is quite predictable — not a good sign when the halfway point of the novel has yet to be reached.

– All of which makes the last 250 pages a bit of a letdown. I liked the characters well enough that I cared about the eventual resolution, but I could have used a surprise or two to challenge my understanding of them. Given that it is the response of the people, not the events, that is the backbone of the novel, it demands more depth and nuance and that simply did not happen.

The fact that I have read three Barker novels is indication enough that her idiosyncratic approach has appeal to me. I continue to believe that one day she is going to find a way to carry the energy and insight that I found in the first third of the novel throughout the entire book — alas, as enjoyable as parts of The Yips were, this is not that book.

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4 Responses to “The Yips, by Nicola Barker”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    This sounds as though it would be something I’d like. I’ve yet to try this author. Any recommendations?

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I think the key with Barker is how you react as a reader to her idea of “voice”. Those who really like her point to her dialogue as the main attraction — those who dislike her tend to abandon the books because they can’t stand the voice. I’m between those extremes in that I do appreciate her tone (and her ability at characterization), but I find that its effect starts to wear.

    As for a recommendation, I gather from reviews that her shorter works are not her best (I haven’t read any, so can’t comment). Of the three that I have read, I think Darkmans is probably the most ambitious — this one probably has the most interesting bunch of funky characters.

  3. Guy Savage Says:

    Ok, thanks. The Yips (and I loved the dialogue quotes–wanted to read more) isn’t here yet, so I’ll have to go with one of the OOP titles anyway. Thanks for the tip.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      It is interesting that Barker doesn’t have an established U.S. publisher — I can recall there was a similar delay with Darkmans. I can’t help but wonder that she might be one of those authors who is “difficult” when it comes to publishers.

      If you like the dialogue quotes, you probably will like her. My recollection is that the voices in Darkmans are quite similar to those here.

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