Darkmans by Nicola Barker - review by Sam Leith

Sam Leith

Spirit of the Jester



Fourth Estate 838pp £17.99

Darkmans is a very strange novel; and, I should admit upfront, a very hard one to review. I began this book in a state of contemptuous irritation, and ended it with a sneaking feeling that the author might be a genius. I read the first 100 pages thinking that the author was as lazy and ill-disciplined as hell; and the final 100 suspecting that the laziness and lack of discipline was all my own.

Darkmans is (as it emerges) deeply and cunningly preoccupied with medieval allegory, and yet told in a rushingly vatic style that's closer to the William Blake / Christopher Smart visionary mode than its medieval predecessors. It slips between ecstatic illumination and drug-induced hallucination. And even if you didn't know about Barker's love of trashy telly, you'd probably notice that the novel’s rhetoric and plot owe a lot to soap-operas like EastEnders or Shameless, and – in the closing pages – Scooby Doo.

Darkmans tells the story of an interrelated handful of characters in the transitional urban tangle of present-day Ashford. There's Kane, charming purveyor of prescription drugs; Kelly, his potty-mouthed teenage ex-girlfriend, scion of the notorious Broad clan; Kane's dad Beede – pillar of the community, big man of the hospital laundry

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