14 MARCH 1998, Page 33


Stretching her talent

Philip Hensher

WIDE OPEN by Nicola Barker Faber, .f12.99, pp. 304 It's easy to assume that a brilliant writer of short stories will be able to turn him or herself into a brilliant novelist, but, in fact, the problems that lie in wait can be almost insuperable. The scrupulous placing of detail the short story demands can seem fussy on a larger scale; the swift establish- ment of character and place, when repeat- ed in a novel, can militate against the slow growth and change which are so useful in sustaining 100,000 words. A telling ambiguity resonates in a 15-page story; in a long novel, the same ambiguity might become merely irritating. Plenty of good novelists have produced stories which are just lumps of prose; plenty of good writers of short stories have produced novels which are too exquisite, too careful, too planned.

But the pressures of the market now are irresistible. Publishers have an incorrigible belief that volumes of short stories don't sell. Opportunities to publish individual short stories have become fewer and fewer; most magazines and newspapers might publish a Christmas story, but that's about it. BBC Radio 4, which used to be a useful outlet for short stories, no longer has any serious interest in broadcasting them. All that is needed, really, is for some bright spark to set up a big prize for a volume of stories for interest to revive among publish- ers. But, at the moment, Chekhov himself would be bullied by his publisher and his reviewers into writing novels.

This is not to say that Nicola Barker's ambitious new novel, Wide Open, is a fail- ure; quite the reverse. But she is a natural miniaturist who extends her range by an effort of will and a careful application of technique. Her two volumes of short stories, Love Your Enemies and Heading Inland, show a writer most at home in a single situation, leaving a reader to explore what is so richly suggested, the life of her characters before and after the few pages of the story. A fat girl, left by her boyfriend, acquires a tapeworm to lose weight and finds the parasite she has more rewarding company than the one she used to put up with. The morning of a wedding is ruined by the discovery of a watermark on the bride's dress; the reader laughs, but is left wondering about the marriage to fol- low. The best of them, and one of the best stories of the last decade, is 'Wesley' from Heading Inland, an exploration of the effects of childhood trauma in later life. Wesley is conditioned by a single awful event, and in three tiny episodes he attempts to establish a relationship with himself by relating to external things: a drawer full of eels, a childhood 'invisible friend', a girlfriend. It is traumatic, deft and immensely resonant; the reader puts it down wanting more, and finds himself all too able to construct the rest of Wesley's life, More is essentially what Nicola Barker provides in Wide Open. Like 'Wesley', it is an exploration of one of the most funda- mental themes of romantic literature, the double. Ronny is driving on the motorway when he sees a man waving on a bridge. He is there the next day, and the next. One day, he stops and speaks to him. His name is Ronny, too. Soon, they are living togeth- er, on Sheppey; the other Ronny is just Ronny, now, and Ronny — happily for the brow-furrowing reader — has been renamed Jim.

But who is Jim? And who is Ronny? For that we have to go to Ronny's brother — or is he Jim's? — Nathan, who works in a lost property office. Perhaps — the reader begins to wonder — one of them doesn't exist; perhaps he is an invisible friend, per- haps an adult version of that most universal of childhood lies, the belief that one had an identical twin, who died at birth. Or per- haps not; perhaps something more disturb- ing, a double who really exists, a secret sharer, who serves the unknowable needs of the troubled "psyche. Because Nathan and Jim's — or Ronny's — father was Big Bad Ron, who did things to them, who messed them up. He won't be back. He .never went away.

The brilliance of Barker's style is beyond question. She is an intensely English writer, a writer steeped in the vernacular, whose flat, intense manner absorbs colour swiftly, who adores what people say. The excel- lence of her dialogue lies in her ability to move from the unremarkable to the bizarre. She loves the eccentricity of the demotic; the fact that people, overheard, may be saying to each other, 'I didn't know where you'd got to.' I was in the prefab. We should eat something'; or 'Am I the kind of girl whose friends write about her to magazines?,' or 'It's too beautiful in here, my head's all golden inside', or any- thing at all. Her territory is the respectable working classes, her linguistic territory, which she sets out with innocent, unjudging clarity, Estuary English. Her characters' names — Vincent, Ruby, Ronny, Connie, Tina — are respectable, slightly comic, and old-fashioned, irredeemably placing a char- acter in a particular social setting; the char- acters' names are caricatures, but they themselves are warm and real.

The poetic flexibility of the style takes on different voices as it moves, not staying in a single register, but moving swiftly from one level of awkwardness to another; she is a master of language, speaking in the voice of the inarticulate, raising them to a pitch of feeling and intensity beyond their means, and yet within their language.

Then James went missing. Initially the police expressed a tolerable level of interest. A list of names were fed into a computer. They called on Margery. Flat hat, blue suit, big hoots. Did she know about Nathan? Did she know about Nathan's history? More specifi- cally, did she know about Nathan's father? He was a convicted paedophile. Did she understand what that meant? Nathan's dad was sexually deviant. He fucked small children. All the time. Big Ron. Big bad Ron. He huffed and he puffed and he blew their fragile houses down. And his own little pig- gies? He tucked them up tight at night, so tight that they couldn't move their tiny arms, and then he peered and he leered and he panted through their weak straw walls. It was all spelled out. Every letter. And every letter spelled a single word. And the word was horrible.

As Philip Larkin almost wrote, they tuck you up, your mum and dad; they may not mean to, but they do. It moves from the stilted phrasing — 'a tolerable level of interest' — and ungrammatical style — 'a list of names were fed' — of the police into a demotic style which, in its rhythm and vocabulary, is both her character's voice and her own; a style as telling when its articulacy fails = 'horrible' is a wonderful understatement for what Big Ron does to his children — as when it succeeds.

It's a beautiful and strange novel, but ambitious in more conventional ways than her previous novels. Compared to her mar- vellous allegory of land and virtue set in a park in Palmers Green, Small Holdings, it seems, for most of its length, intricate rather than profound. It has a large cast, and it takes time before the deft patterning of events and the interactions of character start to move naturally; for much of the novel, the reader is aware of the skill of the author, but not of the lives of the charac- ters. I found it surprisingly difficult to imagine what the characters did between their scenes, or what their lives were like before or after the novel. Luke is just a pornographer, Lily goes further, and is in the end the focus of much of the reader's interest, but is mostly just a rude, dirty girl shouting at strangers on a beach. After putting down Reversed Forecast, you feel you could write another novel about the early life of its splendid heroine, Ruby; after reading Wide Open, you feel that you know almost everything that is to be known about Ronny and Jim and the rest of them. But though it is exhaustive rather than sug- gestive, Wide Open is unmistakably an important novel by an important novelist, stricken, troubling and grand. It is, I am very much afraid, too good for the Booker Prize.