I've fallen in love again. Not with a bloke, though -- with a writer. It all happened because I found Faber Finds. There seems to have been a proliferation lately of publishers reissuing out of print books -- The Bloomsbury Group is doing it too, never mind Virago and Persephone. I can't help suspecting all this owes something to the bloggers, many of whom, like me, take great pleasure in digging up forgotten gems.
Be that as it may, I'd never heard of AL Barker -- that's Audrey Lilian, by the way, though she preferred to be called Pat -- though she published many short story collections and eleven novels, one of which was on the Booker shortlist in 1970. But she caught my eye on the Faber Finds website, and I got hold of a couple of her novels out of sheer curiosity. Well, what a find she turned out to be. The Haunt (1999), was her last novel and it's entrancing, funny, sad, and beautifully written.
I was quite surprised to read on Amazon that this is described as a "short snappy thriller". At 183 pages I suppose it's relatively short, but snappy is not a term I'd use, and it's certainly not a thriller in any conventional sense of the word. Mind you I don't know what genre it belongs to really, and that's one of the great things about it.
Set in Cornwall, the novel ranges over a large cast of disparate and eccentric characters, most of whom are staying in the slightly seedy Bellechasse Hotel. The place is run by Ernie Clapham, who inherited it from a Miss Pendennis, who had taken a liking to him when he was on holiday there as a disaffected teenager. Ernie and his wife are feuding because Ernie is taking too great an interest in the "unprepossessing, not to say slovenly" and simple-minded waitress Bettony. Among the guests are Charlie Olssen, an impecunious painter, who has brought a nude painting of his ex-wife Nina to Cornwall hoping to sell it to her current husband, and hoping, also, to rekindle some passion at the same time. He's been pursued from London by a girl called Senga ("Agnes spelt backwards") who is a journalist and is hoping to interview Piper, a reclusive author who's staying at the hotel. Sad, plain Mildred Gascoigne is also on Piper's trail, though he is unimpressed with her, thinking she resembles an earless rabbit. Then there are the Soulsbys, an American couple with a passion for the occult, and the Wallingtons, Anthony and neurotic Pam, who is sure some dreadful nameless things are lurking somewhere in the vicinity. And, down the road in a 1960s bungalow, are the Griersons, Owen and Elissa, who have moved there from Wimbledon, as "more a flight of fancy than a leap in the dark". The move hasn't been a success -- Owen spends most of his time attacking the weed-ridden garden until he develops a passion for the red-headed next-door-neighbour whose small son prefers to hoot like an owl rather than speak. The end of the novel is a terrific shock, but I'm not going to give that away, obviously.
At this point in a review I usually try to answer the question -- but what is this book actually about? Unfortunately in this case I find myself unable to say. I suppose it's about human beings and their quirks and foibles, but really you could say that about a whole lot of other books too. When the novel was first published this is what The Observer had to say about it: 'Barker has a rare economy of expression, but there's no rationing of emotion. Ultimately, this is as intriguing as a dream that refuses to divulge its meaning. It hints at hidden, perhaps disturbing, things but does so with a fragmentary, perverse charm.' I found this on Amazon, where you can see a lot of other writers and critics praising the novel and Barker's writing in general. All I can say is that it made me laugh very often, that it constantly surprised me, that I loved the style which is spare, delicate and perfectly observed.
So hooray for Faber Finds. I wonder if they'd like to send me any more books to review?