Is it safe to say that no else writes quite like Nicola Barker? In this, her eighth novel - Wide Open won the 2000 Dublin IMPAC Literary Award and Darkman was short-listed for the 2007 man Booker Prize - Barker tries, as you might expect, something new.
Burley Cross Postbox Theft is an epistolary novel, à la Samuel Richardson's Clarissa or Bram Stoker's Dracula or, recently, Richard Wright's Clara Callan. It's a form decidedly out of fashion, which is perhaps why the endlessly innovative Barker chose it as her way of sketching, and skewering, an entire English village. And, of course, it's nothing like an epistolary novel that you might expect.
Burley Cross is an upscale village in West Yorkshire, and the plot (it can't really be called action) is initiated when a flimsy Royal mail postbox is kicked in and a bag of mail nicked by a thief or thieves unknown.
The sardonic Sergeant Laurence Everill, in an opening letter, consigns the case to PC Roger Topping, calling it "the career-making case you've been yearning for (stuck out there on your lonesome, all stiff and cross and swollen - with that haunting blue tinge around your gills - like a huge, neglected gouty toe) is about to land right in the middle of your capacious lap," a fair indication of Barker's burstingly inventive linguistic gymnastics.
The undelivered purloined mail (26 letters, 22 Christmas cards and nine applications for a remedy for erectile dysfunction), all dated Dec. 21, 2006, are eventually discovered dumped in an alley in a nearby town, and offer a linked and kaleidoscopic view of the jealousies and fixations and petty quarrels and romantic and legal entanglements of the residents of Burley Cross. I imagine Barker setting herself a writerly task in providing a different voice for all the letter-writers, plus those of the investigating constabulary; and, by and large, she has delivered nimbly.
The book's central mystery is not really who has cracked open the postbox of this "ludicrously puffed-up moorside village, stuffed to capacity with spoilt second-home owners, southerners, the strange, the 'artistic,' …" and why. Rather, it is the fabric of the lives of other people, who, in Barker's dark comic vision, often seem bordering on madness.
The first letter, for example, is learned, extensively footnoted (100 of them) and obsessively focused on the management of dog feces. The whittling of Congolese fetishes, the theft of manhole covers for nefarious purposes, the doings of a malign duck, odd goings-on in public lavatories, a pub trying to save itself by appealing to large parties, disputes over changing the names of local landmarks, a presumed sex hex, a remarkable auction of promises that creates enormous ripples throughout the novel - these are some of the strands Barker plays with, manipulates and eventually attempts to connect in surprising ways.
Some of the laughs are a tad on the cheap side, such as a fan letter to a famous village author (with secrets of his own, of course) that includes an example of the correspondent's own wretched work. But that's a small objection in a work that often dazzles.
Burley Cross Postbox Theft will appeal less to those interested in narrative drive than to readers mesmerized by Barker's sheer comic energy, her vivacious prose and her obvious delight in creating this small, mad, comic world, full of small intrigues, ungovernable lusts and outraged biliousness. Oh, for good measure, PC Roger Topping, who figures intricately on his own, does solve the mystery of the postal theft. And all wrapped in a lovely tribute to the English village, the village pub (they're disappearing faster than honey bees) and writerly virtues: There is nary an e-mail in sight.
Globe and Mail Books Editor Martin Levin welcomes interesting letters from all and sundry, and occasionally writes them himself.