In January 2003, Granta named Nicola Barker "one of the 20 best young novelists in Britain."
Synopses & Reviews
Wesley glanced behind him. Two people followed, but at a sensible distance. The first was familiar; an old man whose name he knew to be Murdoch. Murdoch, Wesley remembered, had been robust, once. He'd been grizzled. "Huge. Frosty. A magnificent, clambering, prickly pear of a man. He'd been firm and strong and resolute. "Planted; a man-tree, if ever there was one.
Recently, however, Murdoch's body had begun to curve, to arc (they all called him Doc, although he hadn't even seen the inside of a hospital until his sixty-third year -- he was a home birth, people invariably were, back then -- when necessity dictated that a small reddish hillock, a mole, on his right shoulder blade, should be surgically removed. He was a scaffolder, by trade).
But the curving was nothing medical. It went deeper. And along with this -- initially -- almost imperceptible transmutation (Wesley noticed details. It paid him to notice), Doc's colours had begun to alter: his bodily palette had changed from its habitual clean, crisp white, to a painfully tender pink, to a pale, dry, crusty yellow. Up close he smelt all sweet and sickly, like a wilting honeysuckle tendril.
Now, when Murdoch walked, it was as though he carried something huge and weighty within him, something painful, thudding, wearysome. His "heart. It was too full and heavy. Stuffed but tremulous, like a chicken's liver.
"Mmmm. Wesley felt hungry. I could devour him, he thought, smirking. But he knew -- must I know everything? He wondered briefly, the smirk dissipating -- that the thing Murdoch carried so heavily in his heart was grief. Yes, grief. And possibly, just possibly, a tiny, shrew-footed, virtually inaudible,pitter-patter of rage.
Unwieldy burdens. Wesley understood. He'd carried them him-self, and badly. But Murdoch was strong, and he supported them fearlessly, he slung them -- like an ancient holdall with rotted handles -- firmly and evenly between his two old arms.
Doc was accompanied by a little dog. A sandy-coloured terrier. A plucky cur, a legendary ratter. The dog was called Dennis. Wesley knew Dennis well; the stout push of his legs, the familiar bump of his vertebrae, the inquisitive angle of his ears, his horribly intrusive nose, his fur wiry as poor quality pot scourers.
He remembered, once, staring briefly into Dennis's eyes and seeing a wild loop of fleas tightening in a crazy insect lassoo around the bridge of his snout. "Ah. He was a good dog.
And the other person? The second follower? A woman. Wesley peered. She rang no bells. She wasn't familiar. She did not compute. Young. She seemed young and gangly, fine but big-boned with a delicate, tufty, parsnip-shaped head. Not unattractive, either. She was plain but wholesome, like a small, newly dug, recently scrubbed tuber. She was dressed like a boy.
Wesley turned, smiling grimly to himself. They were a bane. Yes. A bane. But only so long as they followed him (and this had to be some kind of compensation), only so long as they stalked, surveyed, trailed, pursued, could he truly depend upon his own safety. They were his witnesses. "Unwitting? Certainly. "Witless? Invariably.
But they were his witnesses. And Wesley knew (better, perhaps, than anybody) that he was a man who desperately needed watching.
"Early. It was too damn early. Wesley paused for a moment in front of a bakery and glanced through thewindow. They'd just opened. He drew close to the glass and touched it. He left a perfect thumbprint. I'm leaving traces, he thought.
He stared down into a tray of speciality doughnuts. They were not the round kind, or the ring. They were not creamy zeppelins, apple-filled or cinnamon-sugar-rolled. No. They were shaped like people. Like gingerbread men.
In Canvey -- because that was where he found himself on this teeth-achingly cold, brutally bracing January morning -- their wild and resolutely wool-infested island history was intertwined with the stamp of spicy ginger, with sweetness, with men (as late as the eighteenth century this precarious domain's unhealthy air -- the interminable "dampness -- brought the fever like an unwelcome wedding gift to raw hordes of eager new brides.
"Malaria. Concealed in the perilous but stealthy fog which constantly tiptoed around this fractured isle like a ravenously phantas-magorical winter mink, slipping, unobserved, between plump and tender post-nuptial lips, slinking, unapprehended, through the spirited flair of passionate nostrils.
Making itself at home. Rearranging the furniture. Infiltrating. Infecting. Conquering. Killing. In those days one stout and ruddy shepherd could take ten wives and think nothing of it. Some, it was rumoured, took as many as thirty-five).
Wesley knew his stuff. Or enough stuff, at least -- he told himself tiredly -- to be getting on with.
The doughnuts he took to be a local peculiarity. He gazed at them. He was hungry. Each doughnut had an ugly red scar where its jam had been pumped in the sweetest transfusion. Generally, the wound was located under the right armpit. Sometimes, but rarely, in the chest.
He glanced up. Instinct. A shop assistant watched him. She was tying on her apron but staring at his hand, her dark eyes, her clean mouth, battling instinctively against a wide tide of revulsion. On his right hand Wesley had only a thumb, and a mass of shiny scar tissue which glimmered a bright bluey-violet in the cold.
He removed his hand and tucked it into his pocket. But the assistant didn't stop her staring. 'I know you, ' she said, the light of recognition gradually dawning. He could see her lips moving. 'I "know you.'
Wesley stared at her, blankly, then turned and walked on.
The old man reached the bakery seconds later. Murdoch stopped in Wesley's tracks and peered through the window. He put his thumb where Wesley's thumb had been. His old eyes fed upon the trays of sweet iced fingers, sticky currant buns, cold bread pudding.
"An earthy, hilarious, romping runaway, Behindlings...is marvelously inventive, a cornucopia of cornucopias
.It is a new kind of book, and an intense kind of joy
.This is the sort of novel which changes things." Ali Smith, Times Literary Supplement
"If you've never read a Nicola Barker novel, prepare to enter a parallel universe. In Barkerland, everything is familiar, but nothing feels quite right
Yet once you have accepted the strangeness, the rest is total beguilement: the richness of her language and imagery, macabre humour and pin-sharp dialogue." Telegraph Magazine (London)
[Nicola Barker] paints the big picture on a small canvas, capturing in it the universality that is the essence of good writing. The Times (London)
[A]n excellent writer....Her vision is unique, funny, dark, cute, sarcastic, and clever. Literary Review
The brilliance of Barkers style is beyond question. The Spectator
Nicola Barker has a rare writing talent. Time Out London
The diversity of Barkers imagination is stunning; her language, witty and exact. Daily Telegraph
Barkers weird imagination works wonders...Exceptional. Elle
"Her vision is unique, funny, dark, sarcastic and clever." Alain de Botton
Spurting with kinetic energy, nasty wit, and kindness to animals, Wesley ought to be a star. Or so it seems to the "Behindlings" followers who nip at his heels, turn up everywhere he goes, and lie in wait for him around every corner. And they themselves make quite an ensemble as they join a treasure hunt in the dreary streets of Canvey Island, gathering their own scabby intentions, irritating habits, and weird manners, but they bury all differences in the common pursuit of their true prize, their Wesley.
Then there are those who simply stay put. While Wesley and his followers are forever on the move, Katherine Turpin lies defiantly isolated in the bed she makes for herself, while outside her failings are broadcast to all, even painted on walls though the curious and the weak still return to her door and her garden of hydrangeas. And when one of the newest Behindlings, Jo Bean, turns from watching Wesley to confront Katherine, much of what has been cobbled together for altogether too long comes very undone.
A January cold snap produces an uncommon amount of heat and light, and the flurry that follows stirs up an unnerving blend of orphans, messing about in boats, and one unforgettable heron.
In Behindlings, the inimitable and ungovernable Nicola Barker takes a character who is perhaps her most compelling creation to date, gives him his head and her novel, and sees him run off with her readers. It is a pretty sight.
Wesley, spurting with kinetic energy, nasty wit, and kindness to animals, ought to be a star. Or so it seems to those who nip at his heels, turn up everywhere he goes, and lie in wait for him around every corner. They are his followers -- he calls them Behindlings.
And they make quite an ensemble, with their own questionable intentions, irritating habits, and weird manners. But they bury all disagreement in the common pursuit of their prize, their Wesley.
Then there are those who simply stay put. Catherine Turpin lies defiantly in the bed she makes for herself while, outside, her failings are broadcast widely, painted on walls, even. When one of Wesley's newest followers, Jo Bean, turns out to be more interested in confronting Catherine than sticking with the behindlings, plots that have been twisted up come undone.
With Behindlings, the inimitable Nicola Barker takes a character who is perhaps her most compelling creation to date, and lets him run off with her readers.
About the Author
Nicola Barker is perhaps the most gifted young English female writer at work today. She has written five books, including the short story collection The Three Button Trick
, and Love Your Enemies
, a short story collection that won the David Higham Prize for Fiction and the Macmillan Silver Pen Award for Fiction.
Barker's work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. In 2000, she won the English-speaking world's largest prize for a single work of fiction, the IMPAC Award, for Wide Open, a novel. In January 2003 she was named one of the 20 best young novelists in Britain by Granta. She lives in London.