Raffaella Barker: Trouble in paradise
Raffaella Barker is well known for her witty chronicles of country life. She tells. Marianne Brace why she has decided to dig deep into the darkness of divorce
Raffaella Barker's horse has gone - swapped for a motorboat with "a sexy engine", like the kind in James Bond films. "You don't have to pass an exam or anything", the writer says eagerly. "You zoom about at very high speed racing other people and being really annoying." It hasn't been a great couple of years for her other animals, either. When Barker moved her cat disappeared for four months, arriving on the doorstep of her old home miles away, "like Jesus coming back after 40 days". Bobby and Jimmy - the dreadlocked sheep - have made the one-way trip from "field to freezer", six hamsters were snatched by sparrow hawks and, worst of all, Barker managed to run over and kill one of her dogs which was "dreadful, so awful". Fans of Barker's country novels, however, will be relieved to learn that some things are sacrosanct. There's still a clutch of bantams scratching near the back door.
But change is in the air, as Barker's new book shows. Her popular Hens Dancing and Summertime, those diaries of a divorced mad housewife, made us snort with laughter. Up to her armpits in mud burying dead pets or boiling with wardrobe rage, her Venetia is a cross between E M Delafield's provincial lady and Bridget Jones. Angel in A Perfect Life (Headline Review, £12.99) may share scatty Venetia's demographics - pastoral abode, cute children, good friends - but she isn't happy. Barker considers what happens when you wake up one day and decide your perfect life isn't so perfect after all.
She wanted to write a book that wasn't comic. "I was thinking about the end of War and Peace when Tolstoy says the pendulum of life and fate just swings and you can't help it. When people are getting on very badly and say, 'I'll leave you', at what point do they actually go?"
Opening with the first lines of Dante's Inferno ("In the middle of our life's path/I found myself in a dark wood/And the way forward was overgrown"), this reads like a classic novel of midlife crisis. Angel and Nick, in their forties, have been married for 18 years and have four children. Suddenly they must face the fact they don't love each other and possibly never did. They have simply kept going, believing they will get there in the end. But where is 'there'?
"You can live a lot of your life asleep, not really knowing why you're doing what you're doing", agrees Barker. But she sees the novel as being about change, which "can happen at any stage and in any situation". She continues, "The irony of the perfect life is that so many people aspire to a house in the country, the husband who works nearby, the lovely children. But material things aren't necessarily going to make you happy."
Despite her ample Victorian house with uninterrupted views of garden and fields, Barker doesn't tend to write at home. "It's distracting here, because I want to go and do gardening or hang out the washing." Instead, she decamps "to any friend who will let me. I've got a friend who is a tailor and I sit in her cutting room on the interlocker. She's snipping out patterns and I'm on my laptop. The great thing is that my mobile doesn't work there and I don't have the internet."
If this all sounds mildly eccentric, it's not so surprising. Barker's upbringing in an old North Norfolk farmhouse is as colourful as a bed of sweet peas. She is the oldest of the five children of poet George Barker and his wife Elspeth, who was 30 years his junior. Some of Raffaella's ten half-siblings were older than her mother. During her teens she often "longed and longed to be normal" and has captured the spirit of her unconventional family in her charming debut novel, Come And Tell Me Some Lies.
Barker spent her childhood riding her pony or with her head in a book. "My father rather wisely paid me to read and as I didn't have much pocket money that worked really well." She adds, " I read all of Jane Austen when I was 11 and Georgette Heyer. Now that seems a bit precocious. It wasn't considered weird in my family but then my family is quite weird."
There were the Saturday night drinking sessions when the house teemed with guests. "I seriously didn't like those evenings - very, very weird behaviour of people who were normally my parents. Frightening. As a teenager I was embarrassed, but my friends loved being allowed to come round, drink, smoke, swear and have fights with grown-ups."
Barker discovered her father's poetry at 18 but was taken to his readings as a child. "The first time I realised it was a big deal was at the Royal Festival Hall. I remember it being absolutely huge, seeing him on the platform and thinking, 'It's so cool. He's just like Dave Allen.'" But they never discussed his work. "His poetry is difficult and I couldn't understand half of it at that age. I rather wished he'd had a proper job and earned a bit more money." It was partly George Barker's death in 1991 which prompted Come And Tell Me Some Lies. Someone asked Raffaella whether she would write her father's biography. She declined. "But I realised I wanted to write about the very strong and complicated feelings I had for my family. There was a lot of wanting to speak about my love for him."
Hens Dancing and Summertime burst out of Barker's journalism. Now a mother with small children, she "loved family life and it was a bit of an expression of that". From Charles Pooter to Adrian Mole, comic diarists have endeared themselves to readers. "A diary means intimacy," says Barker. "It's your private correspondence with yourself." Resonance rather than voyeurism is the key. "As soon as you read about Venetia's hopeless inability to find two shoes that match, you think Christ, that happened to me this morning, and you like her. When I was selling the book, many grand and glamorous women in publishing kept saying, 'But how did you know? You're writing about me!'"
Yet what makes Venetia's diaries more than just "cup cakes and cardigans" is Barker's spot-on observation of children and the way they talk. And she has a real talent for describing nature, whether Venetia's bedraggled garden with its daffodils like "plastic windmills" or stormy light over a petrol-blue sea.
The seasons give a structure to what is a necessarily episodic book. "I like all times of year in the country and have always found enormous solace in nature," says Barker thoughtfully. As a young girl she would fling herself down from her pony to have " a good old cry" but would "notice the smell of the grass". She adds, "I love the extreme ruralness of Norfolk. It's dangerous. In England now there are so many health and safety rules but here you can still die on a picnic."
Indeed, in A Perfect Life Angel's four-year-old son goes missing on an outing , but the novel begins on a fine hot day when "summer is at its most perfect blooming point". It's the school holidays and Angel has taken a sabbatical from her job. Loaded with expectation, summer always has a certain melancholy. "Summer usually starts after the longest day," says Barker. "The swallows come and are already going by the time you've noticed them. It's full of memory and nostalgia, a fleeting season." This story, too, is full of endings: the end of school, of Angel's marriage, of teenager Jem's childhood.
Barker has used three narrative perspectives: Angel, Nick and their 16-year-old son. It was important to have the three viewpoints because Barker didn't want all the sympathy to be with Angel. "It isn't one person's fault, nothing ever is." But Nick is the loser. Compulsive and addictive, he's harking back to his youth and on the constant look-out for sex, a new departure for Barker's fiction. "Loads more sex," she says, laughing. "I loved writing it and wondered whether it was gratuitous. But then I thought, 'No, I can do whatever I like.' It's very freeing, not being married, to write about sex."
Angel is also longing to escape the dark wood in which she finds herself. "She's just a victim of what happens now. It's really hard being wound up like clockwork to believe you can have a job, look after your children, cook Cordon Bleu, have fantastic sex, make your house more beautiful than anyone else's..."
Perfect lives are a touch exhausting. Sometimes it's easier to accept there's no need to have it all. "I used to be really earth-motherish and have just got worse and worse," Barker explains cheerfully. She casts an eye at the prodigal cat. "I don't know why she wanted to come back - it's not that great here!"
Raffaella Barker was born in London in 1964 and moved to Norfolk when she was three. Her father, the poet George Barker, had 15 children; she is the oldest of those by the novelist Elspeth Barker. After Norwich High School, Raffaella Barker moved to London and did life modelling and film-editing. She landed a job on Harpers & Queen magazine and later freelanced as its motoring columnist. For 10 years she wrote a column for Country Life about her week. Her debut novel Come and Tell Me Some Lies was published in 1994, followed by The Hook, Hens Dancing, Summertime, Green Grass and the children's book Phosphorescence. A Perfect Life is published by Headline. Divorced, she lives in Norfolk with her three children aged 17, 15 and eight.