Van has finished reading…Barbarians by Tim Glencross

24 Mar

With thanks to the Curtis Brown Book Group, my March read is Barbarians by Tim Glencross. At the end of each month we have an hour’s online discussion with the author. My first thought on finishing the book was an ambivalent one: An hour? There’s not enough time; this could provoke an eerie, tumbleweed hour of silence! Of course the latter is highly unlikely, given past discussion with my fellow Book Groupies…

Perhaps it says more about our own engagement with the process these days, and the level of access we are granted, that makes us feel we are truly living the age of the Professional Politician. Do we imagine that it was more of a calling in days past? That self-aggrandisement and the clutching of power to the breast are new inventions? Part-way through the book I mused on how Tim Glencross feels about these people – whether he loves or hates them. The sense I’m left with is that it’s their ugliness that attracts, that’s there’s a sort of horrified creeping respect for how far they are prepared to go, and perhaps more so for their ability to dress it up as sacrifice for the greater good.

Interesting too, I think, for the fact that if you took all political reference out of the story you’d be hard pressed to nail down which Party these characters favour. Has the Barbarian; Philistine; Populace delineation ever been so blurred – and so stark?

It’s been said before that it’s a hard task to get people to buy in to your story if your main character is essentially unlikeable. Well, where do I start…Odious characters fair abound in this tale. But don’t let me wrong-foot you. I really enjoyed the book. I think that fascination with plumbing the depths pulls through so that you find you’re as keen to discover where it’s all going to end. And just how messy it’s going to be.

Nor is art what it once was. Pity the poor girl from Orpington who in ignorance downs the most expensive bottle of beer she’ll ever know. There’s a keen eye for the zeitgeist here. You can imagine how Sherard’s skin would crawl at the words ‘I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like’. ‘You’ll find Monet’s lilies on a postcard in the gift shop,’ he’d likely respond – if he responded at all. That said, I can’t help but hold the thought that Sherard might just have cracked the lid and drunk it himself before then.

What holds the attention with this story is the people (odious as they are) and the quintessentially old-school search for love. Could you substitute a Bennett sister for a Buzzy? I almost think you could. Take out the modern setting and it’s all fish-out-of-water, love unrequited and the searching-out of fortunes (or at least a place in the world that makes sense). I confess that I’ve not read a great deal of classic English literature, but if you have I think you’re going to see parallels all over the place, and likely mine a richer vein of reference within it.

It’s in the second half of the book that the focus shifts more steadily to the main characters and their journey; while this might initially seem a criticism, for me it felt appropriate given the intervening political shift. With so many morally compromised characters it’s a case of take your choice and stand by it: I was surprised to find myself rooting for Henry in the end, but that I think has more to do with the vector of his aspirations. Perhaps that says more about me and my place in the old Frost Report sketch: I look up to him because…

I should add, in case I’ve made it sound like a trudge, that while it’s not easy reading it’s not difficult either. It’s also very funny in places. With the election looming large you certainly won’t view glimpses of barbarians…sorry, politicians, in the same light.


3 Responses to “Van has finished reading…Barbarians by Tim Glencross”


  1. The Inaugural Curtis Brown Book Group – my first six months as a #CBBookGroupie | vanisreading - 01/07/2015

    […] Barbarians by Tim Glencross […]

  2. The #CBBookGroupie playlist | vanisreading - 09/02/2016

    […] Theme, Barbarians by Tim […]

  3. Van has finished reading… Hoffer by Tim Glencross | vanisreading - 03/03/2017

    […] is, I think, a detectable delight in the way the author draws them. As with Glencross’s debut, Barbarians, there’s a sense that it’s the ugliness in his characters that attracts him the […]

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