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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
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