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03 June 2010

Whatever you love

If Nicola Barker is my favourite living novelist writing in English, then Louise Doughty may be my favourite person who writes novels in English. You understand the difference? I enjoy Nicola Barker's books much more, but don't know if she's a nice person. Sometimes it's better not to find out. When I first read James Joyce's scatalogical letters to Nora, I was shocked. (Which says more about what kind of naive idiot I was than it does about him.) But I know Louise is a kind and generous person, with a real passion for the cause of the underdog.

Reading Louise's new book, Whatever You Love, feels a bit like reading the diary of someone disturbed and damaged. That's because she's written it to be that way, not because she is either of those things. What she has is an extraordinary ability to imagine and describe the worst kind of pain. In this case, it's the death of a child. There's a relentless examination of the effects of that death on the child's mother. Louise drags you down into this hell, and you have to trust her to pull you back out of it. Does she? Well, kind of. The ending isn't redemptive; things don't suddenly get better, but that's realistic, I suppose.

There isn't much in the way of plot. A few mysteries are posed and resolved, but that isn't the point of the book. The narrative is above all concerned with answering the question of what it takes to get over such a loss.

Why do I prefer Nicola Barker's books? The key thing is the brilliance and daring of the writing. While Burley Cross Postbox Theft was a series of letters, she didn't hesitate to give those letters an unlikely verbosity and sparkle. Louise is much closer to a realistic tradition. This book is a first person narrative, and Laura, the narrator, occasionally speaks in flat sentences, sometimes using awkward clich├ęs. I think Louise would agree that she doesn't do fireworks; neither do I, which may be why I like it so much in writers like Angela Carter or, in a different way, P G Wodehouse.

So, am I recommending this book? Yes, obviously, because it's by someone I admire so much. But it's a tough read, and while it may increase you understanding, it won't cheer you up.

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