Batlava Lake by Adam Mars-Jones review – Barry no mates

A beautifully constructed novella carefully reveals the failings of a hopelessly unperceptive British army engineer

Adam Mars-Jones’s new novella – new to us, that is, as it was first published in Areté magazine in 2017 – is one of those books that proceeds by what it doesn’t tell us. On the one hand, it doesn’t tell us much at all, being fewer than 100 pages long. On the other, narrator Barry Ashton likes to talk a lot, but seems to have trouble getting to the point.

Barry is on the surface a new type of narrator for Mars-Jones: bit of a bloke, an engineer with the British army (“attached to a peacekeeping mission in a hellhole”), oh, and he’s heterosexual too. But scratch his chirpy, guileless, exclamation-mark-spangled exterior (“Often it’s the smallest birds that have the richest song. Making no claims for myself!”) and there are familiar qualities. A fussy meticulousness, like John Cromer in Pilcrow and Cedilla. And a refusal to see what’s under his nose, like Colin in Box Hill.

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