Next month sees the publication of Nicola Barker’s tenth novel, In the Approaches, twenty years on for her first, Reversed Forecast. I’ve been following her career since she was suggested to me by someone I’d never met before (nor would meet again) at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1999 (I like to think she’d appreciate this as her novels often concern the effect strangers have on each other) but the earliest work I’d read was Wide Open – until now. Another chance encounter – with a copy of Reversed Forecast in a charity shop –has changed all that.
Despite being her first novel, Reversed Forecast has a very ‘Barkeresque’ feel (there is a distinctiveness about her work that deserves the adjective treatment, though the profusion of writing Barkers makes this unlikely). As in many of her novels, a cast of misfit characters collide in a series of coincidences which have profound consequences for some of them. Ruby works in a betting shop (a reversed forecast is a type of bet, and gambling is the novel’s central metaphor) and first meets Vincent when he smashes the glass partition that separates the staff from the punters with his head in protest at the treatment of a drunk. As with most Barker characters, there is no back story and little obvious insight into the workings of their minds: actions often seem counter to characters’ thoughts:
“I’ve never even met him before but now he expects me to fork out two hundred in bail money.”
But Ruby does pay Vincent’s bail money, and soon he is living with her. Ruby has a similar reaction later when someone she can’t remember meeting tries to sell her a racing dog – “She wanted to laugh in his face” – but buys the dog anyway.
The novel’s other strand concerns a mother-daughter singing duo, Brera and Sam, and Sam’s sister, Sylvia. Barker indulges in a kind of mock magical realism with Sylvia, who finds birds attracted to her wherever she goes. Unfortunately she is allergic to birds, often ill, and at one point close to death. The other major characters (if we don’t include the dog) are Connor, Sam’s boyfriend for most of the novel, his flatmate, Sarah, and Sam and Brera’s new agent (and Ruby’s ex-boyfriend), Steven. A sizeable cast for a slender novel, but Barker handles them with great dexterity, and at no point did I feel (as you often do with such heavily populated novels), I wish I was reading about another character instead.
It’s always better to experience a Barker novel than to attempt to work out what it’s ‘about’ but the novel’s style, where characters exterior lives don’t seem to reflect their (often hidden) interior ones is a recurring concern. As Connor says of Sam:
“She’s so bloody secretive, he thought. Saves secrets like sweets. Eats them in private.”
In the novel, the characters lack external privacy – all have flat-mates or relatives or (in Ruby’s case) a complete stranger interrupting their lives at regular intervals. They replace this with an inner secrecy. Ruby sums it up:
“In life she decided, there’s an outside and an inside. Things happen outside and things happen inside your body, inside your mind…ideas decisions, feelings. Happiness is just a question of balancing the two.”
The characters, however, struggle to achieve this balance. When Sam and Brera finally begin their tour, Sam, the novel’s most confident character, is completely undermined by a man in the audience who will only stare at her breasts: “Life is a terrible violation,” she thinks.
Sylvia, initially the weakest link, unable, or not allowed, at times to leave her home, cosseted like a child, is the only character to escape. She begins terrified of the inside life:
“Sometimes Sylvia sat in her room and with a great deal of effort tried to summarise her life, to get her head around its totality. Whenever she did this she could think only of nothing. Of a vacuum. The enormity of this vacuum terrified her.”
However, by the novel’s close she has thrown herself at the outside life, enjoying its every sensation.
Reversed Forecast is a reassuringly wonderful first novel (I had perhaps subconsciously avoided it, afraid of disappointment). It’s also a reminder of Barker’s talent that leaves me anticipating June all the more.