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Audacious, original, clever, poignant these are just a few words that describe the writing of Nicola Barker, a talented, award-winning author whose work brings to mind Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, and Maragaret Atwood. Now nineteen of her finest short stories have been complied into one brilliant, delightful readable volume.
It takes young Carrie twenty-one years and a chance meeting with an eighty-three-year-old widow to realize she fell victim to her husband's "Three Button Trick." The main character in "Wesley" must work through his troubled childhood in a series of episodes involving masses of eels, an imaginary friend named Joy, and an unmentionable incident with an emu-owl. From erotic encounters behind clothing racks to a kleptomaniac with his organs on the wrong side, this daring and gifted writer never fails to surprise us, entertain us, and make us think.
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About 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.
Read an Excerpt
Layla's Nose Job
Layla Carter was just about as happy as it was possible for a sixteen-year-old North London girl to be who possessed a nose at least two centimetres longer than any nose among those of her contemporaries. As with all subjects of a sensitive nature, the length of Layla's nose was an issue of great topicality and contention. Common clichés such as 'Don't be nosy' or 'You're getting up my nose,' even everyday phrases like 'Who knows?'especially when uttered by an errant younger brother with a meaningful glance at the relevant part of Layla's physiognomywould cause an atmosphere of hysterical teenage uproar in the Carter's semi-detached in the leafy suburbs of Winchmore Hill.
Layla sensed that the source of her problem was genetic, but neither of her parents, Rose and Larry Carter, possessed noses of any note. Her three siblings were blessed with lovely, truffling pink snouts with snub ends and tiny nostrils. They had nothing to complain about.
Her nose had always been big. On family occasions like Christmas or Easter when her grandparents and great aunts descended on the Carter household for a roast lunch and a glass of Safeways own-brand port, the family photo albums would be dragged out of the cabinet under the television and all tied by blood and name would pore over them and sigh.
No one sighed louder than Layla. Her odyssey of agony and self-consciousness began with her christening snaps and continued well after the visitors had gone home, the washing-up had been doneand the living-room carpet hoovered.
As far as she could tell, her nose had always been disproportionate. She had often had recourse to see other people's christening photographs, and in none of them that she could remember had so many profile shots been taken to so much ill effect. Her nose emerged like a shark's fin from between the delicate folds of her fine, pearly-white shawl, and the sight of it cut into her stomach like a blade.
She struggled to remember a time when the size of her nose hadn't been a full-time preoccupation. As a young child in her first weeks at school, after a particularly violent spate of playground joustinglittle boys shouting 'big nose' at her for a period in excess of fifteen minutesher class teacher had bustled her, howling, into the staff-room and had dried her eyes, saying softly, 'When you grow older you'll study the Romans. They were the people who built all the best, long, straight roads in Britain, many, many years ago. Now just you guess what all of the Romans had in common? They all had fine aquiline noses. Long, straight, proud noses like yours. One day you'll learn to be proud of your nose too. You'll learn that all the best people have strong, bold, expressive faces and strong, proud, dignified noses.' She offered Layla a tissue and said, 'Now go on, blow.' Layla pushed her face forward and then felt a pang of intense misery as her nose poked a hole through the centre of the tissue; like a dog jumping through a paper hoop. Nothing could console her.
People are so cruel, children are so cruel. In the school playground as she grew older, worse humiliations were in store. Her nose became her central signifier. Whenever her best friend Marcy was deputized to approach a handsome young buck for whom Layla had developed a girlish passion, she would always see him turn to Marcy with a frown and say, 'Layla? Who's she?'
By way of explanation Marcy would invariably point her out as she stood skulking in the corner of the playground closest to the girls' toilets and say, 'That's her there. You know, the one with the big nose.'
Marcy always apologized for her indiscretions. She was a sympathetic girl, but she came from a big family where sensitivity and tact often had to be abandoned in the arena of attention-grabbing. She would say to Layla, 'I'd much rather have a big nose than no nose at all.'
Neither of them had ever seen anyone without a nose before, but as the years dragged by Layla regularly stood in front of her bedroom mirror with her hand covering this offending part of her face in an attempt to perceive herself, and her other features, without its overwhelming presence. The result was often quite gratifying. Whenever she tried moaning to her mother, Rose would say, 'Just be grateful for what you have got. You've got pretty blue eyes and lovely soft, brown, curly hair. You've got a good figure too. Be grateful. Try not to be so negative.' In return, Layla would grimace and shout, 'God! It's bad enough having a nose like Mount EverestI'd hardly tolerate being fat as well. I have to make the best of myself, but that doesn't make things any better. In some ways that makes things worse. If I was truly ugly, what would I care if I had a big nose?'
She wished she could chop it off. When she was twelve, a short burst of appointments with the school therapist brought more light to this preoccupation. The therapist told Rose and Larry that Layla's regular association in her conscious and unconscious mind with chopping and removal implied a rather unusual and boyish adherence to what is commonly called the castration complex. He said, 'Layla wants to be a man. She wants to rival her father, Larry, for Rose's love and attention. Unfortunately she has no penis. This makes the penis a hate object. She wants to castrate Larry's penis because she is jealous of it. She feels guilty about her aggressive impulses towards Larry and so turns these feelings of violence on to herself. To Layla, her nose is a penis. Her hatred of her nose is symbolic of her hatred of her own sexuality. When she comes to terms with that, she'll be a happier and more complete person.'
After their appointment the Carters took Layla for a hamburger at the McDonalds in Enfield's town centre as a treat. She sipped her milkshake and frowned. She said, 'What difference does all this make to me? Talking won't change the size of my nose, will it? Why does everyone have to pretend that my nose isn't the problem but that I am? It's as if everyone who wants to help me is determined to believe that my nose isn't all that big at all. But it is. It is!'
She had made her point. The family paid no heed to the therapist's recommendations. Except Larry, who took to locking the bedroom and the bathroom doors whenever he happened to undress; especially when shaving. He must have felt guilty about something.
By the time that she was fifteen, Layla knew everything conceivable about dealing with an outsize nose. She knew how to react when boys got on to the school bus in the afternoons and laughed at her and gesticulated, she knew how to comb and style her hair in a way that helped to accentuate her better features as opposed to her worse, she knew how to avoid having her photograph taken on family occasions (on holiday and at home), she knew how to spend hours every morning with a make-up brush and facial foundation, shading the sides of her nose and lightening its centre in a way she'd seen depicted in hundreds of teenage girls' magazines. Most of all she knew how to focus on this one, single thing. She made herself into a nose on legs.
She could not read a magazine without studying the nose of every model on its waxy, paper pages. If a model had a slightly larger nose than usual she would tear out the picture and put it into a scrapbook or stuff it in the drawer of her desk. At night she would list in her mind successful people who had big noses. She counted them like sheep in her pre-dream state; Chryssie Hynde, Margaret Thatcher, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Dustin Hoffman, Rowan Atkinson, Cher. She thought about Cher quite a bit, because Cher had had her nose fixed.
In her dreams she visualized a scalpel, and its sharp edge touched her face like a kiss. It sliced her nose away so that her face felt light and radiant. But when she tried to bring her hand to her face to feel her new nose, her arms felt terribly heavy and could not be lifted. She used all her energy and willpower to attempt to lift them but they would not move. At this point she would awake from her dream and discover that she was actually trying to lift her arms, her real arms. In an instant she could then lift them to her face, and feel her face, and feel that everything was still the same. Even in her dreams, wish-fulfilment had its limits. Nothing ever went all the way.
Layla's problems were more than just cosmetic when she was fifteen. At this time Marcy began going out with her first serious boyfriend. Although they remained best friends this meant that Marcy grew less supportive towards Layla and increasingly preoccupied with her new relationship. She also became enthusiastic about the idea of Layla becoming involved in a relationship herself. Layla had very high standards. All the boys who supposedly found her attractive did so (she firmly believed, with some grounds), because they were universally unattractive themselves.
But the pressure was on. Marcy visualized the 'double date' as the height of teenage sophistication and sociability. 'Imagine how much fun we could have if you and someone else could come out with me and Craig,' she'd say.
One warm summer Wednesday afternoon after school, Layla and Marcy went for a brisk stroll around the precinct in the town centre, looking at clothes, talking about teachers and drinking root beer. They ended up at Waitrose, where they bought a packet of Yum-Yum doughnut twists. Marcy suggested that they eat them on a bench in the park.
It was a set-up. Layla had barely taken the first bite of her doughnut when Craig turned up with one of his friends, Elvis. Her heart plummeted. After mumbling hello she walked a short distance to feed the rest of her Yum-Yum to a wayward duck. After a minute or so Marcy came over to her. She took her arm and said, 'Don't you like Elvis? Craig and I thought you'd get along.'
Layla baulked at this. She said, 'You thought we'd get along because we both have big noses, is that it?'
Marcy laughed nervously. 'Of course not. He's Jewish. Lots of Jewish men have big noses, it's natural.'
Layla forgot herself and wiped her sticky hands on her school dress. When she spoke again, her voice was dangerously calm. 'Of all the boys in the school you choose the one with the biggest nose to match me up with. You're supposed to be my best friend.'
'Lots of women think that Jewish men are very sexy, that their big noses are sexy,' Marcy interrupted.
Layla exploded, 'I hate big noses. I hate my nose. Why the hell should I want to go out with someone with an enormous nose?'
The two boys had turned to face them from their position by the bench. Elvis looked flush and irritated. Craig was laughing. He called over, 'You know what they say about men with big noses, don't you, Layla? They've got the biggest pricks.' He turned to Elvis. 'You'll vouch for that, won't you?'
Elvis was extremely angry. He said, 'You know what they say about girls with big noses, don't you, Layla? They say that they're very, very, very ugly, and that no one wants to go out with them.' He showed her one finger.
Her face went crimson. Marcy tried to defuse the situation. She rubbed Layla's arm apologetically. 'He's normally quite nice. I think he overheard us. He was upset, he didn't mean what he said.'
Layla pulled her arm away with great violence, the force of which pushed her a step backwards and sent the duck skittering off. 'Thanks a lot. Thanks for really humiliating me. I thought you were my friend. I suppose you and Craig had a real laugh planning this.'
Elvis had marched off in disgust, but Craig had made his way over to Marcy's side and put his arm protectively around her shoulders. 'Marcy was only trying to be nice. You make a mistake in thinking that everyone else is as interested in your stupid nose as you are. Elvis would've been a fool to want to go out with you, anyway. You're too self-obsessed.'
Layla strode over to the bench where she had left her school bag, and picked it up by its strap. Then she turned and said, 'Just because I have a big nose you all feel you've got the right to look down on me. I can just imagine Elvis and I going out on a date. Everyone who saw us would say, "Isn't it nice that two such strangely deformed people have found each other." I suppose it's like two dwarves going out together or two blind people, or two people with terrible speech impediments who could spit and stutter at each other over Wimpy milkshakes. Well, I want better than that. I'm more than just a big nose. I thought I was your best friend, Marcy, but in fact I'm just your big-nosed friend. That's all I am.'
Marcy said nothing as Layla sped away across the park.
That night when she got home Layla went straight to her bedroom. She locked the door and wouldn't come out. Rose left her a dinner-tray outside the door. She was concerned for Layla. The previous week she had seen a programme on teenage suicide. Layla was so volatile. Larry told her not to worry.
Layla sat alone and did a lot of thinking. She tried to analyse her world view. She tried to get outside herself and to see her situation from all angles. One central problem faced her: had other people made her self-conscious about her nose, or was she just vain, as Craig had implied? Had she created the problem for herself, or had society made her nose into a monster? Obviously her nose had always been in the centre of her face and it had always been big, but was that in itself enough to destroy her life?
She thought about Elvis and wondered how much consideration he gave to the size of his nose. But his was a Jewish nose. Hers was just a big nose. She knew that the size of Elvis's nose fitted into a larger scheme of things. It had a cultural space. It meant something. She thought, 'If you're Jewish and have a big nose it's like being Barbra Streisand or Mel Brooks. It means that you have a history, that you belong. The shape of my nose is just a mistake. My problem is stuck right bang in the centre of my face, and it has no wider implications than that. My problem is my nose. I didn't make the problem, the problem made me.'
It was so simple. It had to come off.
Late that evening she went downstairs into the living room and switched off the television. She stood in front of the screenlike a wonderful character from a film or a soapand she announced firmly, 'Either I have a nose job or I kill myself. I can't go on like this any longer. I've heard that you can have one on the National Health. If you both love me you will help me.' She swayed gently as though she were about to swoon, then gathered herself up and strode from the room like Boadicea approaching her chariot: a woman with swords on her wheels.
Rose made an appointment with their local GP the following afternoon. Layla took an hour off school. She explained her problem to the GP and he agreed to book her in with a specialist.
Five months later Layla met the specialist. He was called Dr Chris Shaben and was a small, vivacious, balding man with a crooked face and yellowy teeth. Apparently he had a very beautiful wife. His surgery was on Harley Street and the gold plaque on his door said, 'Dr Chris Shaben, Plastic Surgeon' in a beautiful flowing script.
Layla sat in his office and discussed her nose at great length. For the first time ever she felt as though she was actually talking to someone who cared, someone who understood, and best of all, someone who could do something. It was as a dream to her. Entering his surgery had been like a scene of recognition in a book or a film; that moment when everything falls into place. It was an ecstatic moment. Layla was like a newborn child finding its mother's milky nipple for the first time.
It took a while to convince Dr Shaben that she was desperate and sincere. He said, 'Normally we only do plastic surgery treatments on the National Health if the problem involved is more than just cosmetic, but I'm willing to make an exception in this instance, Layla. Although you're young, you're very articulate and intelligent. I realize that your concerns go deeper than mere vanity.'
Layla nodded. She said slowly, 'For a while I tried to make myself believe that I had made the size of my nose into an issue, that the problem was to do with me, on the inside, not the out. My parents encouraged this line of thought, although my Mum has always been supportive, and my analysis did the same thing. But now I know that the problem is on the outside too. People judge one another visually; I should know, I do it myself. I want to be normal. I want to stop being on the outside, the periphery.'
Dr Shaben nodded and smiled at Layla. His bald head and short stature made him look like a tiny, benign, laughing Buddah as he sat hunched and serene in his big, leather, office chair.
Before the operation Layla abandoned her GCSE course work and concentrated instead on the leaflets, diagrams and information surrounding the surgery that she was about to undertake. She read how modern technology now meant that some nose operations could be undertaken entirely through the nostrils without any recourse to external incisions and unsightly scarring. The nose was chiefly made up out of bone and gristle, but was also extremely sensitive because of the large number of nerve endings at its tip. She tested this theory by smacking her nose with a pencil and then smacking other parts of her face like her cheeks and eyebrows. The nose was much more delicate. After the operation, a certain amount of swelling and bruising was to be expected.
Four days after her sixteenth birthday Layla awoke in a large and unfamiliar room. Her duvet was tightly stretched across her chest and felt unusually harsh and full of static. She was dopey. Her throat felt weird and dry. Her nose was numb but ached. She thought for an instant that she was dreaming her nose dream, that she wanted to put her hands to her face but her hands were restricted, yet after a few minutes she realized that she was in a strange bed in a strange environment. It was no dream, but her arms were restricted by the tightness of her sheets and blankets. She wriggled her body gently to create some room and worked her hands free. She placed them on her face. Her nose hurt. Her hands touched soft, filmy bandage and Band-Aid. It was done.
For the next five days her head felt light. Dr Shaben said that it was simply psychological, but she felt the lightness of a person who once had long hair and then cut it short, the roomy strangeness of someone who has had their arm broken and set in plaster and then has the plaster removed so that their arm floats up into the air because it feels so odd and weightless and light.
At first her face looked swollen and ugly. In hospital she wore no make-up and was blue with bruises. But she could see the difference. In the mirror her nose looked further away. Dr Shaben was pleased for her. He was well satisfied.
Throughout her stay in hospital, Rose had been in to see her every day. Larry preferred to stay away. Before she had gone in on her first night he had said to her, 'Remember how when you were small I would sit you on my knee and bounce you up and down and call you my little elephant girl? You always laughed and giggled. It's not like that any more. Now you've grown up into someone I don't recognize. I can't approve of what you are doing. God made you as you are. That should be enough.'
This came as a great shock to Layla. She had completely forgotten Larry's pet name for her. When she heard him say it again it was like a blow to her face, a blow to her nose, making it ache, making her numb. It was a kind of violent anaesthetic.
She was being pulled in so many directions. Everyone had a different opinion as to the whys and wherefores. Rose simply said, 'Do whatever will make you happy.'
After five days she came home. Although she was still slightly bruised, the mirror was her friend. Her three brothers greeted her at the front door with euphoric whoopings. Larry sat in the living room, watching the cricket. He turned after a minute or so and saw her, standing nervously by the door, her hands touching the bookcase for support. First he smiled, then he laughed, 'Five days away, all that money spent, and look at you. No difference! You look no different.' He laughed on long after she had left the room, but when he'd finished his stomach felt bitter.
Later Marcy visited. She smiled widely and hugged Layla like a real friend. Then she looked closely at her nose and said, 'Maybe your nose looks slightly different, but to me you are still the same old Layla. In my mind's eye you are exactly the same person. Nothing has changed.' She thought that she was saying the right thing.
Layla sat alone upstairs in her room, staring into the mirror. She felt sure that she looked different. She felt sure that she was now a different person, inside. But the worry now consumed her that other people would not be able to see how different she looked. It felt like a conspiracy. She thought, 'Maybe I've become the ugly person I was outside, inside. Perhaps that can never be changed.' She felt like Pinocchio.
That night she had a dream. In her dream she was a tiny little elephant, but she was without a trunk. She had four legs and thick grey skin, but flapping ears and a thin end-tassled tail. But she had no nose. Because she had no nose she couldn't pick things upto eat, to wash, to have funall these things were now impossible. It was like being without arms. She kept asking for help. Her mother smiled and stroked her, but everyone else just laughed and pointed.
She slept late. When she awoke she felt battered and exhausted. When she looked into the mirror, her old face looked back at her. Nothing had changed. She felt utterly helpless. Her mind rambled and a thousand different images moved through the space behind her eyes. Her head was full of colour. She saw different people too, pointing their fingers, wiping her nose, holding her arm, bouncing her up and down on their knee, up and down, up and down.
In the kitchen she looked for a small knife to cut the top off her boiled egg. Instead she found that she had a chopping knife in her hand and it was as long as her arm. She cut the egg in half and its yolk hit the wall. She placed the blade near to her nose and felt tempted to move it closer. She stopped. For hours she remained stationary.
Larry had forgotten his sandwiches. He drove home in his lunch hour and let himself into the quiet house. He went upstairs for a quick pee. For once he neglected to shut and lock the door. He whistled contentedly.
Downstairs in the kitchen Layla's mind started to turn again. She considered her options.
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Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life
Nicola Barker is an excellent writer…Her vision is unique, funny, dark, cute, sarcastic, and clever.