Adam Mars-Jones’s previous novel, Box Hill, was a devilishly unsettling sex comedy narrated by Colin, a train driver who looks back to how, on turning eighteen in 1975, he stumbled into a submissive relationship with Ray, an older man whose domination of Colin seems – at least to the reader – indistinguishable from abuse. Colin, for his part, recalls the affair fondly. The energy of the novel lies in how it dares us to dismiss his chatty testimony in a manner akin to the disregard shown him by Ray.
Mars-Jones’s new book is also narrated by a protagonist who doesn’t quite appear able to hear the story he is telling. Barry is an auxiliary engineer attached to the British Army as it rebuilds Kosovo’s infrastructure in 1999. He uses words like ‘wally’ and ‘plonker’, tells us he doesn’t like coleslaw (‘don’t see the point of it’) and that pink toilet paper is for ‘poofs’ (‘I’m old-fashioned, that’s all it is. Maybe not up to date with the new ways of talking … I’ve met gay people, got nothing against them, but still’). His position as a civilian in a military setting leads to uneasy status games involving banter that seems much like humiliation – a torment that clearly interests Mars-Jones – but which he recounts with good cheer. The novel turns on a prank to which Barry falls victim after agreeing to race his colleagues in self-built boats across Batlava Lake in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina.
The set piece is one of several that introduce tension into Barry’s leisurely narrative. Such episodes, hovering between farce and something nastier, often involve encounters with Kosovans, who at one point prompt frantic scrambling through an Albanian dictionary in search of the word for ‘pork’ when they appear at an army barbecue. But Batlava Lake is essentially a character study in which the setbacks of Barry’s personal life (a failed marriage, difficult relationships with his children and, behind it all, his parents) emerge from between the lines of his egotistically self-deprecating recollections: ‘If I’ve done the washing-up I’d rather do it again than put the things away and then find my hands are empty, no task coming up on the horizon.’ He once taped his ex-wife snoring during Top Gear (‘Which she didn’t appreciate!’) and forgot her birthday: ‘It wasn’t going to be in the forefront of my mind, was it, seeing as how as I was attached to a NATO peace-keeping mission policing a ravaged hellhole at the time.’
Barry presents himself as a guardian of knowledge (when he talks of ‘WFA’, it’s seemingly only to be able to explain that he means ‘winter fuel additive, or even plain anti-freeze’), yet also tells us that ‘the Barry brain doesn’t do languages’: ‘“Gut und Morgen” is about as much as I can manage in foreign parts, doesn’t get you far in Kosovo.’ He refers to ‘what the Jugoslavs did, back when that’s what they were, Jugoslavs’, and ‘whisky, or “whiskey” I suppose it should be, being Irish’. But his punctiliousness is often misplaced: he mixes up lanyards and halyards, says ‘updation’ for ‘update’ and asks us not to talk to him ‘about post-traumatic stress disorder. PSTD, is it?’
Malapropisms are usually the tool of a social satirist, and a narrator so lacking in self-awareness tends to be a figure of fun. But Mars-Jones uses the set-up to generate pathos; it’s just that he’s so strenuous about avoiding sentimentality that his affection can be taken for scorn. However much Barry undermines himself, the novel insists he should be taken seriously. His day job handling projects for Essex County Council gives him a particular insight into British life: ‘Was a time public bodies did their own maintenance, everything in-house. Value for money, common sense. Then everything changed and it was tenders and contracts, budgets and overspends, but it was still about the same thing, value for money. New kind of common sense, with everything turned upside down.’
Like Box Hill, Batlava Lake is a sophisticated performance in which it can be difficult to determine where Mars-Jones himself is. But we might recall that he dedicated his 2008 novel Pilcrow ‘in memory of the Net Book Agreement’, a pre-internet price-fixing measure that he called the ‘unglamorous defender of my trade’, the abolition of which arguably provides an example of the ‘new kind of common sense’ Barry describes here. A comedy about an Englishman abroad as well as a war novel by the back door, Batlava Lake offers an elegiac snapshot of a moment in recent history that feels much longer ago.