Nicola Barker's novel Wide Open is a bit of a hot potato. I suspect it has passed through some readers' hands more quickly than others. My friend for one. It sat on her kitchen table for 16 hours before making its way into my bag at her insistence. Categorically not for her.
My friend's friend, a visitor over New Year, had been given Wide Open as a summer read by yet another friend. She loved it - as much as you can love a book about a group of misfit island dwellers with dominant themes of pornography and paedophilia, underscored with violence. (Isn't it always?)
These are not my preferred themes. I can get strident and stroppy and down-right sanctimonious about porn alone.
But there is something masterful and compelling about Nicola Barker's characters and their interplay that draws you near. She is not gratuitous, nor linear. The damage is not delivered head on, but hinted at through the many weird and wonderful coping mechanisms various characters contrive.
I'm only half-way through but her originality is startling. She provides a sometimes unnerving and, at other times, compassionate and humorous window on society's misfits. Every one is but a link in a maladapted chain.
Except the outsiders; the seemingly normal inhabitants of the outside world, whose interactions with Barker's island misfits leave you in no doubt that we are all just one episode away from losing it. Vicious like snarling dogs, the outsiders reflect society's intolerance of and prejudices about anything beyond the bell curve.
I can't say I particularly like the characters and I certainly don't identify with them. But I am surprisingly empathetic.
And Nicola Barker can write. Her prose is quite mesmerising and unlike anything I've read before. She churns them out too; eleven novels in 17 years, and two collections of short stories.
Despite her significant critical acclaim and literary awards, she told one interviewer she didn't have much of a fan base vis a vis letters and correspondence, because her readers probably think she's a 'maniac'.
Of course, it does raise the thorny issue of who I should offer it to next. (I can hear echoes of elder daughter's perplexed indignation upon having been invited to a boy's party at Laserstrike last year. "Why on earth did he think I would like that?")
Because, if Barker is true to form, there will be no happy ending here, no redemption. It gave my friend the perfect out. "I like happy books."
Perhaps I should pass it on to Mr T. He's currently reading the Stieg Larsson trilogy, and happy definitely doesn't come into it.