Whatever Happened to Snail Mail?

Burley Cross Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker

I was really keen to read Nicola Barker’s new book. I’ve read three others of hers, (although not her Booker shortlisted chunkster Darkmans yet). In those books I found she has a rare feel for ordinary people’s lives in and around London, capturing lifestyles and dialogue perfectly with great wit. Clear: A Transparent Novel was brilliant. Set during magician David Blaine’s stay in a suspended perspex box near Tower Bridge, it contained this gem close to the start of the book – an amazing simile describing the spectacle and egg-throwing public:

It’s like the embankment is a toilet and Blaine is just the scented rim-block dangling in his disposable plastic container from the bowl at the top.

However, her new book, Burley Cross Postbox Theft is a very different kettle of fish and marks new territory for Barker.  It’s set in a small Yorkshire village for a start – the sort of place where everybody thinks they know what everybody else is doing, but secrets and misunderstandings abound, and it ends up with nobody actually knowing what each other is doing, if you get my drift! It’s also a crime novel, but with a difference… it’s written entirely in letters – epistolary to use the posh word for it.

Someone has broken into Burley Cross’s postbox, (I love the cover by the way), and taken the letters, of which 27 were found behind a hair salon in nearby Skipton. Sergeant Everill at Skipton has failed to crack the case and is passing it back to his old school pal PC Topping at Ilkley.   The book then comprises Everill’s letter to Topping telling him about the case, then the 27 recovered letters, then memos and letters from PC Topping closing the case.

There is absolutely masses of comedic potential there and we meet a huge array of characters, from the overbearing and sex-mad Baxter Thorndyke, Cllr,  to Unity who volunteered to sew a quilt in the village’s totally disastrous Auction of Promises. Then there’s local jobsworth Jeremy Baverstock who is at war with  batty widow Tirza Parry over her habit of bagging up other people’s dog poo. He writes (with footnotes) …

Given the idiosyncratic nature of the bags employed (TP prefers a small, pink-tinged, transparent bag (43) – probably better adapted for household use, i.e. freezing meat (44) – instead of the usual, custom-made, matt-black kind (45)) it was easy, from very early on, to understand that the person bagging up and ‘displaying’ these faeces was not only happy, but almost keen to leave some kind of ‘signature’ behind.

These are just a few of the denizens of this village in which things don’t go well. The pub is accepting coach parties, the am dram society are searching for Jesus (for their biblical epic), there’s a mad, bad and dangerous to know duck and my favourite, a Congolese woodcarver whose tortured fetish is mistaken for Christ on the cross.

Yet as a whole it doesn’t quite work. In these days of email, writing a letter by hand is becoming a rare occurence, Given that most of the addressees and authors were local, you’d probably telephone or go round in person rather than write a very long letter if your email wasn’t working, wouldn’t you? So the letters themselves are contrived of origin.  Then there’s the length – it would take me a couple of hours or more to write some of the longer missives by hand. But it was the style of the letters that did frustrate me, as many were a one-sided conversation in nature, complete with digressions, anecdotes, use of the vernacular, and so much gossip, which you wouldn’t expect in letters of these types – for many of them are written in protest at one villager or another’s actions! Clearly setting the novel a decade or two before we all got connected would have given some authenticity to the need for letter-writing.

As we read through the letters, we gradually get to know what’s going on behind the curtains in Burley Cross. It was nigh-on impossible to feel for any of the characters, most of whom were ghastly and profoundly irritating. I was nowhere close to working out whodunnit either, but the trusty PC Topping does, which brings the book to a satisying close. I also felt that the village could have been virtually anywhere – it didn’t feel very ‘Yorkshire’ to me, but I am a Sarf Lunn’ner!

This book was extremely ambitious and a little bit too clever for its own good. I did sort of enjoy it and it has grown on me in the days since I finished reading it; as a biting satire on village life it really succeeds. (7.5/10)

Source: Publisher – Thank you

Nicola Barker, Burley Cross Postbox Theft, (4th Estate, 2010) paperback, 352 pages.

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