Wide Open

Wide Open

by Nicola Barker

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During his commute to a job spraying weed killer outside of London, Ronny passes a man standing on a bridge, waving at the cars - every day, no matter what the time or the weather. One day, when Ronny drives by, the man is hanging over the bridge, as if he might jump. Instinctively, Ronny pulls over and begins talking to the stranger. Ronny discovers the man is also…  See more details below


During his commute to a job spraying weed killer outside of London, Ronny passes a man standing on a bridge, waving at the cars - every day, no matter what the time or the weather. One day, when Ronny drives by, the man is hanging over the bridge, as if he might jump. Instinctively, Ronny pulls over and begins talking to the stranger. Ronny discovers the man is also named Ronny, wears his kind of white shoes, and knows his older brother Nathan. The rest of Wide Open's characters are as intriguingly peculiar as the two Ronnies. Nathan, the son of a pedophile, works in the Underground's Lost Property department logging missing items. Sara is Ronny's neighbor in the beach town of Sheppey, where she runs the family boar farm. Lily is her precocious teenaged daughter, born without fully formed organs or properly clotting blood. Luke, a handsome neighbor who swims in the nude and smells of fish, is a former pornographic photographer. Connie, Sara's niece, is a visiting optician searching out her father's past with a bundle of strange letters.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Barker is a young, award-winning English writer barely known here (her Love Your Enemies is nominally available from Faber), who has now been taken on by enterprising Ecco. She is a highly offbeat writer, weaving a strange tale of abandonment and redemption around a set of eccentric characters brought together on a bleak stretch of the Thames estuary called the Isle of Sheppey. There is Ronny (later to change his name to Jim), who comes across another Ronny dangling from a bridge over a highway while he is driving to his work spraying weed killer. Ronny 1 (Jim) finds this stranger knows his brother Nathan, who works in the Underground Lost Property Office. Out at Sheppey is Ronny 1's neighbor Sara, who runs a boar farm; Luke, a pornographic photographer who is trying to stop smoking and drinking in this remote seaside place; Sara's noisy, strung-out daughter Lily; and Sara's niece, optician Connie, who comes to visit. These odd, damaged people are presented with tenderness and humor, their baffling and often outrageous interactions chronicled with benign acceptance; and eventually they achieve a sort of uneasy, hard-won peace in the death of Ronny 2 and the unraveling of an old family secret. What keeps the reader engaged among the murky goings-on is the ever alert and highly original style Barker employs, full of vivid images and little explosions of recognition; there is a poetic sensibility at work among these extremely prosy characters. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
A wayward, often puzzling, but ultimately rather haunting story about a group of outcasts, all in flight from a variety of real or imagined horrors, who collide on a desolate patch of British seacoast. British writer Barker (Love Your Enemy, stories, 1994, not reviewed; etc.) is exceptionally audacious; for much of the novel, the forces that have set her characters in motion and the odd ways in which several are related are only vaguely suggested. She depends on the sheer strangeness of them, their skewed mental states, and on her precise descriptions of their fractured interpretations of the world to propel the reader on. There are, to begin with, two men who meet in Londonþone is homeless, absorbed by weird rituals, perhaps suicidal; the other makes a living applying toxic sprays to urban weeds. Alarmed and fascinated by the homeless man, the latter takes him along to his small, featureless house by the sea. Both, it seems, are named Ronny. Their neighbors include Lily, a young woman who is "unpredictable, stunted and raging," and Luke, a diffident pornographer. Soon theyþre joined by Connie, whoþs in search of a mysterious figure named as a beneficiary in her father's will, and Nathan, the older brother of one of the Ronnys, a man crippled by his failure to save his brother, years ago, from the appetites of their violent pedophile father. These figures are alike only in their baffled inability to communicate with the world and in their increasingly violent hopes of escapeþfrom their odd dreams, from each other, and from life. A climax of sorts begins with the escape of a massive boar from a nearby farm. One character dies, another suffers a breakdown, severalothers achieve weird kinds of liberation. Theme resolutions, however, appear incidental. Barker seems determined both to defy most narrative expectations and to create a group of figures so isolated and so strange that they both fascinate and move us. Itþs some testament to her skill that she succeeds in both goals. Not an easy book, but an oddly (even unpleasantly) affecting one.

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
5.75(w) x 8.43(h) x 1.07(d)

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Chapter One

Each day Ronny saw the same man waving. The man stood in the middle of a bridge, at its very centre point, but always looking outwards, facing away from London, never towards it. Ronny drove under that bridge in a borrowed car, a Volvo (the big bumpers reassured him), and into London along the A2. for three consecutive weeks. Every day, no matter what the time--he was working shifts, and by no means regular ones--the man stood on the bridge, waving.

He didn't wave randomly. He picked out a car as a smudge on the horizon and then focused on that car alone, until it had passed from sight, until it had driven right under him. Until it had gone. Then he'd choose another car and the whole process would start over.

Ronny noticed that the man preferred white cars and yellow cars, that he never waved at red cars. Ronny's car was green. He was waved at sometimes, but infrequently. He didn't wave back.

Some days it rained. It was the tail end of summer. It was the beginning of winter. It was autumn, formally, but Ronny hated gradations. It wasn't summer. Summer had gone. It wasn't winter. Winter was frosty, traditionally, and it was nowhere near cold enough for frost yet. It was simply a wet time. The whole earth was sodden and weighted and clotted and terrible. It was raining. Always raining. But the man stood on the bridge and he waved, nonetheless.

On the last day, the final day of his three-week working stint, Ronny looked out for the man but saw that he was not waving. He was there, sure enough, but he was crouched over, hanging, it seemed, across the bar of the bridge. What was he thinking of? What was he doing? Ronny scowled andtried to keep his eyes on the road.

He didn't want to stare, but his eyes kept shifting from the road to the bridge, from the road to the bridge. He indicated and then swung into the inside lane. He slowed down, inadvertently. A truck honked and jolted him out of his eye-high reverie.

He passed under the bridge and then out the other side. He checked his rear-view mirror. He couldn't see anything. Why should he? He was on the wrong side now. He slowed down even further. Three cars overtook him. His foot touched the brake.

What was he doing? He didn't want to stop but he found himself stopping. He pulled into the hard shoulder. He turned off the engine, unfastened his seatbelt, stepped out of the car, slammed the door shut behind him but didn't pause to lock it. Instead he started off towards the bridge at a lively pace. His keys bumped and jangled against his thigh in his pocket.

He reached the embankment, drew breath for a moment and then began to climb. It was steep. The soil was damp. His shoes--white shoes--were muddied. He cursed.

Eventually he made it to the top. He clambered over the fence, crossed the road, and was finally able to see the waver up close. He felt an unexpected surge of gratification, as though this visual intimacy was something he'd longed for, only he hadn't quite realized it.

At first glance the waver seemed fairly unexceptional. He had a beard and longish, tangled brown hair. He was pale. His clothes were shabby. He'd been crying.

Ronny drew closer. He stamped the mud off his shoes. 'Is anything the matter?"

The man was bent double, was curled up like a dirty bandage, but he grew and grew like Jack's beanstalk when Ronny spoke to him. He seemed to unfold, to unwind to his full height, which was considerable. Tall, Ronny thought, and thin. Ronny was thin too, but he felt much smaller.

'Is something wrong?'

The man was standing now, and Ronny saw that he had not in fact been squatting before but sitting, on a small batteredlooking cardboard box. He had his left hand cupped, and in his curved palm he held something.

'What is that?'

The man answered, his voice nearly extinguished by the roar of the traffic below, 'Come and see.'

Ronny drew closer still. He stared into the man's hand. He inhaled sharply. The man's fingers were shiny with scar tissue, but only on their tips, where they shone as smooth as wax, as pale as lard. Nestled in the centre of these strange fingers was a dirty palm. In the palm was a wasp.

'A wasp,' Ronny said softly. 'What's wrong with it?'

'It was in a puddle. I should have left it but I saw it was still moving so I picked it up. I believed I could save it.'

Ronny stared at the wasp more fixedly. It was still alive. It moved, but only slightly. It seemed to be arching itself, the dainty waist between its black thorax and striped abdomen virtually snapping in two.

'It's been writhing,' the man said, his voice--Ronny felt--ridiculously emotional.

'It's been in so much pain.'

Ronny adjusted the blue woollen hat he was wearing. He pulled it low over his eyebrows. He cleared his throat, cautiously. 'I don't think wasps feel pain,' he said, anticipating a strong reaction.

The man glanced up, clearly indignant, his eyes, Ronny noticed, a wild cess-pit green, his cheeks drawn and hollow. 'How can you know that?'

'I don't. I'm just guessing.'

'Well you're wrong. Look properly for a second and then try and tell me that it feels nothing.'

Ronny tried his best to look properly. The wasp stirred, only slightly, but it seemed to be shuddering. Its movements were small yet jagged and loose and horrible.

'It'll die in a minute,' Ronny muttered, vaguely disquieted, withdrawing again and wishing he could ask the man why it...

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