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People twitching

21 December 2012

Simon Jones reads a novel with warmth

The Yips
Nicola Barker
Fourth Estate £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10
(Use code CT524)  

TAKE a vicar, a tattooist, a professional golfer, and a Muslim sex-therapist, and you are almost cer-tain to end up with a joke. Nicola Barker's Booker-longlisted The Yips is flamboyantly funny - but it is also ambitious, tender, wise, and deeply humane.

Stuart Ransome, the golfer, has the condition that gives the book its title: a nervous twitch that makes putting impossible. And it is nerves rather than golf that give the book its organising structure (if something so odd and vortexed can be believed to have a structure at all).

The Vicar, Sheila, is depressed. The tattooist, Val, is agoraphobic, although she is able to venture out in a client's niqab ("She is no longer fearful, she is blank as an unaddressed letter. She is dead. She is empty. She is un."). The relationship between Val's fears and her identity pay out movingly as well as comedically as she deals with the legacy of her Nazi-obsessed father and her attraction to Gene, Sheila's husband, who has recovered from cancer a significant seven times.

Sheila saw God on a train, but decided to become a vicar only after coming into contact with (the atheist) Gene's goodness in the face of adversity. She loves the provisionality of his lack of faith, while he is attracted to her assurance and focus. Each of these positions is challenged in the course of the novel, but Barker allows each spouse his or her beliefs without critical intervention. The detail sparkles (Gene's eyes are "two errant kites on unreliable strings", for example), but it is this authorial warmth that really impresses. All of her main characters - even the hopelessly ranting and misogynist Ransome - edge their way from fall to redemption.

If every family is unhappy in its own way, Barker's mission seems to be to attach the big subjects of their unhappiness to the smaller mercies of compassion. Turning a page on The Yips is a little like hitting the button on a jack-in-the-box. But it is also a little like real life.

Simon Jones is editor of Third Way magazine.

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