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.
Barry wants to tell us about his time in Pristina, Kosovo, in 1999, but gets bogged down in secondary information about seeing Kate Adie in a hotel, or a disastrous amateur boatbuilding competition, or (yuk) his surprising sex life during his failed marriage to Carol. (“Nothing wrong with a nice creamy korma, but sometimes – you just feel like a vindaloo. Tell me I’m wrong! Burnt tongue and not minding.”)
But this trivia tells us something about Barry: a man with no friends and little sense of wonder, who’s better with things than with people, and who can’t see through the detail to what’s really going on. After a time, those blithe exclamation marks start to hurt like a hammer to the heart.
And when we finally find out what he’s been skirting around, it all fits together precisely, and we look back in wonder at how we got from there to here without being able to see the join. Mars-Jones, it turns out, is an expert engineer himself. And much better at people than poor old Barry.
• Batlava Lake by Adam Mars-Jones is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (£10.99). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply