Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 19, 2018

Darkmans (2007), by Nicola Barker

Darkmans was shortlisted for the Booker in 2007, but I bet I’m not the only one who bought it and then left it unread on the shelf because of its intimidating size. It’s 838 pages long, and although it soon becomes unputdownable, the first hundred pages or so are rather confusing.  I had to stop, start again, and keep notes to keep track of what was going on, until I had grasped who the characters were and had some inkling about the plot.  What there is of it…

Ashford International Station (Wikipedia Commons*)

The most disconcerting character of all is the medieval past bleeding into the prosaic town of Ashford in Kent.  If you’ve taken the Eurostar through the Chunnel to Paris, you may have glimpsed Ashford, but all that I remember of it is a vast, echoing, fully automated carpark to return the hire car.  But Ashford has a medieval heart (which actually began with a Viking settlement in 893AD, see Wikipedia) and the character of John Beede in this novel is deeply hostile to modern developments i.e. boring suburbs, shopping malls, and freeways.

Beede is a model citizen, but he is deeply conservative about place and he has never recovered from the Chunnel’s access route ploughing through Newington where his maternal grandmother lived.  Insult was added to injury when he campaigned to save an old mill mentioned in the Domesday Book, and slaved away at dismantling it brick-by-brick so that it could be re-erected, only to have it collapse because recent improvements had made it unstable.  Worse still was that he became a suspect when some very special tiles went missing, a minor plot point which returns later on in the novel.

Beede’s son Kane, aged 26, is a dealer in prescription drugs, and while these two share a household, they have nothing else in common and lead entirely separate lives.  Until, that is, something very odd happens when they both happen to be in a café called The French Connection.  There is a fleeting image of a medieval horseman, and then another horseman turns up.  This one – as real as the 21st century life around them – is ridden by Isidore (Dory), who appears to suffer from some kind of mental disturbance, possibly a fugue state.  He doesn’t remember how he came to be riding this horse, which belongs on some nearby farmland.  Beede rescues Dory from the awkwardness of this situation by taking the horse back and recovering Dory’s car.  But the impression of a horseman out of time and place remains.

Albi Cathedral, in the Midi-Pyrenees, France (Wikipedia Commons*)

There are other odd manifestations.  Dory’s wife Elen not only has to cope with a husband who manifests some very strange behaviours indeed, she also has a precocious five-year-old called Fleet who builds extraordinary creations out of matchsticks, including a model of the Albi Cathedral in France.  He sings madrigals without ever having been exposed to them before, and he also knows all kinds of historical information that five-year-olds do not normally know.  There are predatory birds which attack characters in a way that is familiar to readers of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series and there are menacing shadows which seem to derive from strange old books about a jester in erratic service to Edward IV.  This malevolent jester is called John Scogin – and he is also Fleet’s imaginary friend.

One of Kane’s ‘clients’ is Kelly, a wild and rumbustious creation who comes from a family of minor criminals.  (Her mother Dina has to be one of the most excruciatingly hilarious characters in fiction).  With a vocabulary consisting almost entirely of profanities, Kelly enters proceedings when she falls off a wall and breaks her leg.  Gaffer, a Kurdish refugee who’s come to repair the broken house entry  phone, goes to her aid and is promptly beaten up by Kane.  And in a signal that the novel is going to be a riotous confection that confounds expectations on every page, Kane not only bonds with Gaffar over a joint but hires him, because he admires his skill as a street fighter.

BTW I really like Barker’s technique for rendering Gaffar’s dialogue, and I think this is a device that Australian authors could respectfully use with multicultural characters for whom English is a second language.  Gaffar speaks only broken English, but text in bold depicts what he is saying in Turkish, with only occasional English words breaking through.  This gives Gaffar a dignity that he wouldn’t have if the reader were not privy to the sophistication of his own language, and in a nice reversal of what we usually see in such dialogue, it also shows that his English listeners only understand a small part of what he is saying to them.  Here’s a sample:

‘I boxer,’ Gaffar announced proudly.  ‘and trust me, I would’ve severely pulped your spotty, teenage arse, back in 61.’
‘Oh really?’
‘Yes.  In my country I’m a celebrity  – famous, eh? – for my amazing talents as a featherweight.’ 

Beede cries off because of the disparity in their ages, but Gaffar has his measure:

‘Let’s roll for it, Greybeard,’ Gaffar was smiling, ‘I’ll even give you a head start, as a mark of your seniority.’ (p.76)

Beede doesn’t catch on until he sees the dice.

Darkmans is a wildly comic and deeply anarchic novel.  It stalls a little towards the end as if Barker has suddenly realised that she needs to have her characters explain matters for the reader’s benefit, but overall it is a very satisfying novel.  I have barely scratched the surface of its intricacies but I liked the way it subverted the complexities of modern life with humour and compassion.  When I look back over the British novels I’ve recently read, most of them have had a grim undercurrent, and while that might just be my choice of novels and not indicative of a trend, I did enjoy chuckling over this one.  Very much indeed.

  • Photo of Ashford International Station by Martin Belam from Hania, Crete – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, (Wikipedia Commons)
  • Photo of Albi Cathedral by Jean-Christophe BENOIST – Own work, CC BY 3.0, (Wikipedia Commons)

Author: Nicola Barker
Title: Darkmans
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins) 2007
ISBN: 9780007270170
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $35.00

Available from Fishpond: Darkmans



  1. I’ve never felt inclined to read this author, but I do quite like the sound of this novel. I’ve still got The Luminaries sitting unread on my shelves for similar reasons to the one you give about this one…


    • Oh no, Darkmans is a different beast altogether. The Luminaries is a tiresome book indeed, ponderous, self-conscious, and ultimately forgettable, it’s the one that made me stop collecting First Editions of Booker winners. Perhaps you could read it as a Lenten penance, but if I had my reading time back again, I wouldn’t bother at all.
      But this one, with its sense of The Past lurking within the streets and lanes we walk on, has a sense of humour. The characterisation and dialogue is splendid.


  2. Characters from the past bleeding into the present, you lost me right there. What point does this sort of magic realism serve?


    • Oh come now, Bill, here in Australia, don’t you ever have a sense of past lives echoing through the millennia? I don’t have a spiritual or mystical bone in my body but I have an acute awareness that every step I take in modern Britain – or Rome or Paris and closer to home Vietnam or Cambodia – bears a history that ought to be remembered.
      And you would love the characters in this anarchic novel, I bet.


      • Ok. Interesting that you think that ‘sense of past lives’ can be represented in literature as this author has done. I’ll think on it.


  3. I can’t see myself persevering with a book I need to make notes on in order to keep track of! But it seems as though it was worth it for you. I may just need to take your word for it though.


    • Interesting that you say that because I have only recently jettisoned another book because I couldn’t make sense of it without doing so. But this one captivated me from the start, it was just that there were a lot of characters to get to know in the beginning. Once I had a handle on who was whom, I stopped summarising each chapter, and just read it.
      But I did occasionally feel, as I came across new pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, that I should be noting them, in case *blush* my ageing brain forgot how things slotted together…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’d never heard of this. Sounds fascinating but I’ll probably leave it at knowing it through you methinks.

    I am about to jettison a book I gave up about a decade ago because it was just too much hard work. I’m not sure whether I would manage it better now that I’m not mothering young adults – which is the reason I’ve hung onto it – but I’m close to deciding not.


    • I’m more brutal about jettisoning books than I used to be….

      Liked by 1 person

  5. So interesting to read your review, Lisa. I read this book just after it was listed for the Booker, and because of the medieval references. I’m afraid it passed me by: I was too confused about who everyone was to begin to enjoy it. Perhaps if I’d sorted everyone out at the beginning, as you did, it might have made more sense to me. I persevered to the end but was none the wiser! But I’m glad to know you enjoyed it; I’ll settle for that.


    • Hello Robyn, nice to hear from you… I hope Book of Colours is doing well!
      Judging by what’s been written at Goodreads, quite a few of us struggled with connecting up the many characters in the beginning.. I think if I hadn’t liked that outrageous Kelly so much I probably would have given up too. (And that’s strange, because I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t much like a Kelly in real life).
      I bought Nicola Barker’s H(A)ppy just recently too, when it won some prize (Goldsmith’s?) so it will be interesting to see if she is as unrestrained in that one too…


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