Filler content under water

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #31:-

A L Barker
Virago hb, 239pp, £16.99

This volume contains seven stories by the little known but highly respected Barker, each one a polished gem, laced with wry humour and shot through with insight, tales in which things are never quite what they seem and we judge too quickly at our peril.

In ‘Submerged’ a young boy is witness to a woman’s death by drowning, but keeps silent and allows a man to be charged with her murder for reasons of his own. An elderly woman on her own at Christmas receives an unexpected and wholly unwelcome visitor in ‘Someone at the Door’, while ‘Men, Those Fabulous Creatures’ has a do-gooder getting the wrong end of the stick entirely on a visit to an old people’s home. In ‘The Iconoclasts’ a young boy’s adulation for his older friend leads him into trouble and the historical ‘Jane Dore – Dear Childe’ has a lustful preacher accusing the object of his desires of witchcraft. ‘A Chapter in the Life of Henry Subuto’ gleefully recounts the adventures of a junior conman in a tone reminiscent of Saki.

Set during WWII, at 117 pages ‘Novelette’ is the longest and also the best story in the collection. It tells of a young serviceman billeted with a family in the countryside while he recovers from his wounds, and wreaking emotional havoc in the heart of the older woman who cares for him. Barker doesn’t set a foot wrong here, capturing perfectly the confused and contradictory feelings of the various characters, how and why they act as they do, the loss of innocence and attendant guilt, the clash between dreams and that old spoiler reality.

These stories are beautifully written, the richness of the prose bringing their world to vibrant life, and they contain some compelling evocations of the human animal in his all too often tawdry splendour, unlocking the heart and revealing all its secret hopes and fears, yet still retaining a sense of the ineffable. Recommended to those who want something that’s a little bit off the beaten track.

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