What I’m Reading: Nicola Barker – Wide Open

This book cannot be trusted. It lures you in by being ostensibly a British comedy filled with endearingly eccentric characters and funny dialogue and then, once you are completely drawn in, begins to peel back the layers and to bit by bit reveal the darkness that lies at the core of all that apparent quirkiness. But then, the novel keeps you on your toes right from the start, beginning with the way it presents a parade of apparently unrelated characters, sending the reader to hunt for clues on how they might be connected, to scower the novel for hints, which are collected and then arranged in more or less meaningful patterns – much like one of the novel’s character’s does with shells he finds on the beach.

It is not just the relation of the characters to each other that is a puzzle but also their relation to themselves – I’m not sure how to even refer to two of the novel’s main protagonists, as they exchange names at one point and the novel and everyone else calls them by their new name from their on, as if they had indeed become the other person. But it is not as easy as that, because they both have a past that sticks with them even after the name change. And it does not help that those histories also have to be pieced together by the reader from scattered scraps and throwaway mentions – and remain so to some part even after the end of the novel, not every thread is neatly tied up by the finale. Or that is how it seemed to me, maybe I just need to dig deeper, search more thoroughly, try out different patterns…

Eventually, everything converges in the somewhat unlikely location of the Isle of Sheppey in Kent; everyone is brought together for a grand finale, and things get quite dramatic, there are even gunshots fired. At the same time, nothing is really resolved, but each of the characters have had their inner selves revealed to each other and to the reader, have been laid wide open. The catalyst for that, Jim/Ronny (not to be confused with Ronny /Jim), however, even though we find out some things about him and even though he is in some respects the most vulnerable of all the novel’s protagonists, remains largely a mystery even by the end.

Wide Open is a novel that is both very funny and deeply disturbing. Interestingly though – and this, I think, is what makes this novel special – it does not follow the strategy of making us laugh at something essentially horrifying in order to enhance the horror (like, to just take the first example that enters my mind, Catch 22 does). The funny and the frightening connect in a quite different way in Wide Open, or rather they connect by not really connecting at all – the quirkiness of the novel’s characters, their lovable oddities conceal the darkness underneath, a world of hurts received and given, of mental scars and unresolved trauma, of a potential for cruelty and violence that can burst forth every moment given the right provocation. But even as it lays bare its characters’ dark core, the novel still remains very funny, containing lots of genuinely comic dialogue and not shying back from outright slapstick humour either – in a way, the horror here is as deadpan as the humour.

All in all, it makes for a very disconcerting, at times even positively uncomfortable reading experience, also a very unique one. I can’t really think of anyone to compare her to – maybe Robert Walser, but in a very remote way and mostly due to his works inducing a similarly unsettling sensation in me. This was the first book by Nicola Barker I have read, and while I wouldn’t say that I exactly liked it, I found it very intriguing and will likely be reading more of her work.

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