Browsing library shelves is usually a low-percentage way for me to find a good book to review, but sometimes it brings an unexpected gift. Discovering A.L. Barker was just that for me. This British author published 11 novels and 10 collections of short stories, one of them the winner of the first-ever Somerset Maugham prize in 1947. One novel was a nominee for the 1969 Booker Prize. These distinctions went to an author born in 1918.
She was 70 when she wrote "The Haunt," my lucky pick on the bookshelf. It’s a lively, witty, fast moving story of characters, quirky and conventional, who by chance all find themselves in a small village in Cornwall where an odd, rundown hotel called the Bellechasse becomes the setting for much of the story.
Charlie is a painter who is carrying his full frontal nude portrait of his former wife to Cornwall to give to her current husband. Owen and Elissa have left the London suburbs to retire in Cornwall, without much thought. Owen is quickly befriended by a strange little boy who lives near the hotel and hoots rather than speaks. Mildred is a spinsterish lady who has come to the hotel for a change and for her health. A mysterious gentleman named Piper is being stalked by a journalist from London who yearns to do a profile of him. She calls herself Senga ( Agnes spelled backwards). Bettony is a lumpy, not very bright young woman who fails as kitchen help but hires on as companion helper to Eashing, an intellectually inclined gentleman confined to a wheelchair. Several couples fill out the big cast of characters, and interesting observations about marriage abound.
Barker can define her characters well with brief snippets of dialogue. For example, Owen believes that on his retirement, he'll be going to a new life.
“Begins at sixty,” Owen said.
Elissa: “We’ll find a village, not touristy: it needn’t be thatched.”
“Miles from a superstore?”
And with that they are off to Cornwall.
The area’s forests, beaches, gardens, shorelines and even churches bear a mysterious and sinister aura. Ancient myths reign over the area. The paranormal is more than hinted at, as a casserole flies off the kitchen shelf and through a doorway, a husband is seen as having healing powers, trees rise grotesquely out of the ground, and someone seems to have a heart attack and minutes later is quite perky again. A character claims he was followed by a Mercedes with a Rottweiler at the wheel, elbow out the driver’s door. Most of the characters are striving for something and veer toward it in very human and funny ways.
I’m glad I stumbled across A.L. (for Audrey Lilian) Barker and would like to read more. She wrote well into her old age and died in 2002 at age 84.