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by Nicola Barker

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Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Darkmans is an exhilarating, extraordinary examination of the ways in which history can play jokes on us all... If History is just a sick joke which keeps on repeating itself, then who exactly might be telling it, and why? Could it be John Scogin, Edward IV's infamous court jester, whose favorite pastime was to burn


Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Darkmans is an exhilarating, extraordinary examination of the ways in which history can play jokes on us all... If History is just a sick joke which keeps on repeating itself, then who exactly might be telling it, and why? Could it be John Scogin, Edward IV's infamous court jester, whose favorite pastime was to burn people alive - for a laugh? Or could it be Andrew Boarde, Henry VIII's physician, who kindly wrote John Scogin's biography? Or could it be a tiny Kurd called Gaffar whose days are blighted by an unspeakable terror of - uh - salad? Or a beautiful, bulimic harpy with ridiculously weak bones? Or a man who guards Beckley Woods with a Samurai sword and a pregnant terrier?

Darkmans is a very modern book, set in Ashford [a ridiculously modern town], about two very old-fashioned subjects: love and jealousy. It's also a book about invasion, obsession, displacement and possession, about comedy, art, prescription drugs and chiropody. And the main character? The past, which creeps up on the present and whispers something quite dark - quite unspeakable - into its ear.

The third of Nicola Barker's narratives of the Thames Gateway, Darkmans is an epic novel of startling originality.

Editorial Reviews

Sylvia Brownrigg
…to suggest that this dazzling, complex novel has anything quite as conventional as a plot would be misleading. There are plenty of mysteries…but Barker enjoys the journey of her storytelling too much to worry about when she'll arrive at her destination. So great are her humor, wit and erudition that she's able to charm us into sharing her tolerance of uncertainty and confusion. And despite her fondness for narrative detours, Barker knows how to keep things moving.
—The New York Times

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Chapter One

Kane dealt prescription drugs in Ashford; the Gateway to Europe. His main supplier was Anthony Shilling, a Waste Management Coordinator at the Frances Fairfax. Shilling was a quiet, Jamaican gentleman (caucasian—his family originally plantation owners) who came to England in the early seventies, settled in Dalston, London, and fell in love with a woman called Mercy, whose own family hailed from The Dominican Republic.

Mercy was British born. Anthony and Mercy moved to South Kent in 1976, where they settled and raised four daughters, one of whom was a professor of Political Sciences at Leeds University and had written a book called Culture Clashes: Protest Songs and The Yardies (1977–1999).

Kane was waiting for Anthony at the French Connection; a vulgar, graceless, licensed 'family restaurant' (a mammoth, prefabricated hut, inside of which a broad American roadhouse mentality rubbed up against all that was most intimate and accessible in Swiss chalet-style decor) on the fringes of the Orbital Park, one of Ashford's three largest—and most recent—greenfield industrial development sites.

The restaurant had been thoughtfully constructed to service the adjacent Travel Inn, which had, in turn, been thoughtfully constructed to service the through-traffic from the Channel Tunnel, much of which still roared carelessly past, just beyond the car park, the giant, plastic, fort-themed children's play area, the slight man-made bank and the formless, aimless tufts of old meadow and marshland with which the Bad Munstereifel Road (named after Ashford's delightful, medieval German twin) wasneatly—if inconclusively—hemmed.

It was still too early for lunch on a Tuesday morning, and Kane (who hadn't been to bed yet) was slouched back in a heavily varnished pine chair, sucking ruminatively on a fresh Marlboro, and staring quizzically across the table at Beede, his father.

Beede also worked at the Frances Fairfax, where he ran the laundry with an almost mythical efficiency. Beede was his surname. His first name—his Christian name—was actually Daniel. But people knew him as Beede and it suited him well because he was small, and hard, and unquestionably venerable (in precisely the manner of his legendarily bookish eighth-century precursor).

Beede knew all about Kane's business dealings, and didn't actually seem to give a damn that his only son was cheerfully participating in acts of both a legally and ethically questionable nature. Yet Anthony Shilling's involvement was—in Beede's opinion—an altogether different matter. He just couldn't understand it. It deeply perplexed him. He had liked and admired both Tony and Mercy for many years. He considered them 'rounded'; a respectable, comfortable, functional couple. Mercy had been a friend of Kane's mother, Heather (now deceased—she and Beede had separated when Kane was still a toddler). Beede struggled to comprehend Tony's motivation. He knew that it wasn't just a question of money. But that was all he knew, and he didn't dare (or care) to enquire any further.

'Beede.' Kane suddenly spoke. Beede glanced up from his secondhand Penguin orange-spine with a quick frown. Kane took a long drag on his cigarette.


Beede was irritable.

Kane exhaled at his leisure.

'What the fuck are you doing?'

Kane's tone was not aggressive, more lackadaisical, and leavened by its trademark tinge of gentle mockery.

Beede continued to scowl. 'What does it look like?'

He shook the book at Kane—by way of an answer—then returned to it, huffily.

Kane wasn't in the slightest bit dismayed by the sharpness of Beede's response.

'But why the fuck,' he said, 'are you doing it here?'

Beede didn't even look up this time, just indicated, boredly, towards his coffee cup. 'Should I draw you a picture?'

Kane smiled.

He and Beede were not close. And they were not similar, either. They were different in almost every conceivable way. Beede was lithe, dark, strong-jawed, slate-haired and heavily bespectacled. He seemed like the kind of man who could deal with almost any kind of physical or intellectual challenge—

It's the radiator. If you want to try and limp back home with it, I'll need a tub of margarine, a litre of water and a packet of Stimorol; but I won't make you any promises . . .

Ned Kelly's last ever words? Spoken as he stood on the scaffold: 'Such is life.'

You're saying you've never used a traditional loom before? Well it's pretty straightforward . . .

Yes, I do believe the earwig is the only insect which actually suckles its young.

No. Nietzsche didn't hate humanity. That's far too simplistic. What Nietzsche actually said was, 'Man is something which must be overcome.'

To all intents and purposes Daniel Beede was a model citizen. So much so, in fact, that in 1983 he'd been awarded the Freedom of the Borough as a direct consequence of his tireless work in charitable and community projects during the previous two decades.

He was Ashford born and bred; a true denizen of a town which had always—but especially in recent years—been a landmark in social and physical re-invention. Ashford was a through-town, an ancient turnpike (to Maidstone, to Hythe, to Faversham, to Romney, to Canterbury), a geographical plughole; a place of passing and fording (Ash-ford, formerly Essetesford, the Eshe being a tributary of the River Stour).

Yet in recent years Beede had been in the unenviable position of finding his own home increasingly unrecognisable to him (Change; My God! He woke up, deep in the night, and could no longer locate himself. Even the blankets felt different—the quality of light through his window—the air). Worse still, Beede currently considered himself to be one of the few individuals in this now flourishing 'Borough of Opportunity' (current population c.102,000) to have been washed up and spat out by the recent boom.

Prior to his time (why not call it a Life Sentence?) in the hospital laundry, Beede had worked—initially at ground level . . .

Darkmans. Copyright © by Nicola Barker. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Nicola Barker is one of Britain's most original and exciting literary talents. She is the author of two short-story collections: Love Your Enemies [winner of the David Higham Prize and the Macmillan Silver Pen Award] and Heading Inland [winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize]. Her previous novels are Reversed Forecast, Small Holdings, Wide Open Behindlings and Clear, the last of which was long-listed for the 2005 Booker Prize. Her work is translated into twenty languages, and in 2000, she won the IMPAC Award for Wide Open. In 2003, Nicola Barker was named a Granta Best of British Novelist. She lives in London.

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Darkmans 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I dont know where to start except by saying this is one of the books you will look back on and be oh so happy you stumbled across. Stumbled is the key word, i had to seek out a book like this one. it wont be found on the top 10, or bestsellers list and thats a shame but at the same time you will love the fact that you can cherish this and tell only the people you know will appreciate it. Nicola Barker is amazing!
harstan More than 1 year ago
Although geography has made Ashford, England somewhat an important town historically, today it is an ordinary town with ordinary people living ordinary lives. However, it is the past that makes those who live here revel in delight as the present and future beyond a Kent rail stop to the Chunnel is that of mediocrity. Especially fascinating the local populace is the reign of King Henry VIII when Ashford was a somewhat more significant town. However, history proves a cosmic joke when historiographers begin to rewrite it in their image. Thus father and son Beede and Kane get closer yet further apart while Dory and Elen and their five years old son Fleet obsess over the past especially when the kid constructs his match models of historical locales. Kane¿s former girlfriend Kelly accentuates the past as she is yesterday¿s news in his mind. This tale is about ordinary people in an ordinary town living ordinary lives except for that glorious past, which ironically begins to impede on their ordinary well respected lifestyles. --- This is a deep character study that is not an easy novel to read as the action is limited for the most part to the mundane events of everyday living by everyday people yet none of the ensemble cast including the dog are stereotypes each is unique with differing traits. Whereas most English history books focus on the royals, DARKMANS makes the case that those texts and related historical novels miss reality the history writers ignore the complex contributions of regular people who enable a Henry VIII seem greater than life (someone cleans out his bowl). Well written and thought provokingly entertaining, readers will reconsider the key link between prescription drugs and Anglo-Franco wars because a ¿Well Respected Man¿ hides his Kinks as ¿he¿s oh, so good, And he¿s oh, so fine, And he¿s oh, so healthy, In his body and his mind. He¿s a well respected man about town¿ even when his dog poops or pukes publicly. --- Harriet Klausner