Sunday, 9 May 2010

Book of the Week and Bibliography - Nicola Barker, Burley Cross Postbox Theft

Over the course of the year, I buy one book per week. I have looked at several new books from established writers this week, none of which have seemed entirely convincing, but in the end have opted for Burley Cross Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker. Barker is an important and original writer who pushes the boundaries of conventional structure and plot. Therefore she is not for everyone, and her books tend to divide opinion quite strongly. However, most of her books have been published to considerable critical acclaim and she has picked up a number of significant literary awards, including the IMPAC award for Wide Open. Her previous novel, Darkmans, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was a huge, dark, complex, sprawling piece of fiction which was a challenging but rewarding read. The Burley Cross Postbox Theft seems to have taken many reviewers by surprise, as it is (at least superficially) a much lighter work of fiction, focussing on life in a small Yorkshire village and exploring the lives of the inhabitants and pre-occupations of the inhabitants through a series of letters written by them. It is a much more obviously comic novel than much of her previous work, but confirms her position as a significant writer.

Nicola Barker was born in Ely, Cambridgeshire, in 1966. She spent part of her life in South Africa but returned to England when she was 14. She was educated at King's College, Cambridge. In 2003 Nicola Barker was nominated by Granta magazine as one of 20 'Best of Young British Novelists'. Looking back at her previous books, Barker shares a number of frustrating characteristics which will be recognised by any collector of modern fiction. A number of her books were published only in paperback, and are therefore fragile. There is little doubt that a collection of novels in dustwrappers is much more attractive than a mixed bag of hardcovers and softcovers, even if some of the latter were published in French wraps. Some of her early books are uncommon, but none are particularly costly. Darkmans is currently the most expensive (due presumably to demand from Booker Prize collectors), but is readily available. A comprehensive collection could be established at present relatively easily for a little over £100.

“From the award-winning author of Clear comes a comic epistolary novel of startling originality and wit. Reading other people’s letters always provides a guilty pleasure. There’s no such joy for two west Yorkshire policemen. They contemplate twenty-seven letters with the task of solving a crime: the shocking attack, just before Christmas, on a post box in the village of Burley Cross. Exhausted, Sergeant Laurence Everill gives up the task and hands the case over to PC Roger Topping. Topping is submerged into examining the curtain-twitching lives of Jeremy Baverstock, Baxter Thorndyke, the Jonty Weiss-Quinns, Mrs Tirzana Parry, widow, and a splendid array of more weird, wonderful characters, inhabiting a world where everyone’s secrets are worn on their sleeves. Pettiness becomes epic, little is writ large.

From complaints about dog shit to horse-trodden turkeys, from Biblical amateur dramatics and a failing novelist’s fan mail, a chicken that turns out to be a duck and an Auction of Promises that goes staggeringly, horribly wrong a dozen times and more, Nicola Barker’s epistolary novel is one of immense comic range, her characteristic ambition, her shrewd humanity but, above all, about how we laugh at ourselves and fail to see the funny side. It is unlike anything else Britain’s most consistently surprising writer has written: desperately readable, leaving the reader (if not the policemen) shuddering with mirth – Burley Cross Post Box Theft is a Cranford for today, albeit with a decent dose of Tamiflu, some dodgy sex therapy and a whiff of cheap-smelling vodka.”

Bibliography and current values:

Love Your Enemies, Faber and Faber, 1993 (a collection of short stories: £15-30 in dw).
Reversed Forecast, Faber and Faber, 1994 (first novel, paperback only: £10 -20).
Small Holdings, Faber and Faber, 1995 (paperback in French wraps: £20-30).
Heading Inland, Faber and Faber, 1996 (short stories, paperback: £5-15).
Wide Open, Faber and Faber, 1998 (novel: £5-15 in dw).
Five Miles from Outer Hope, Faber and Faber, 2000 (paperback: £5-15).
Behindlings, Flamingo, 2002 (paperback in French wraps: £10-15).
The Three Button Trick, Flamingo, 2003 (short stories, paperback; £10-15).
Clear, Fourth Estate, 2004 (£15-20 in dw).
Darkmans, Fourth Estate, 2007 (£20-40 in dw).
Burley Cross Postbox Theft, Fourth Estate, 2010 (£15–20 in dw)
The Yips, Fourth Estate, 2012.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent review. I love Nicola Barker's work. There's a really great iPhone app for this, you should check it out and post a review of it.