Review: Barbara Baker by Steven Hugh

Barbara BakerBarbara Baker by Steven Hugh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in the reading of Barbara Baker, a simply titled book about a seemingly innocuous woman with a secret past. The blurb provides a succinct synopsis – perhaps a little too succinct for the story that actually ends up taking place.
The book opens from Barbara Baker’s perspective, introducing us to a woman originally from Trinidad but immigrated to England some years back, who keeps to herself working as a nurse in a trauma center and trying to raise her young son as a single mother. Through a rather rambling conversation between Barbara and gregarious co-worker Becky Hugh illuminates us to current state of events in the British economy and culture, painting a picture of what Barbara, as a low-paid nurse, is up against. Hugh does this a great deal throughout the book: giving us heaps of information about current events, people, and relationships and so on via long patches of dialog that, while well written, tend to drag on. We actually know more about who the main character through other characters’ eyes and misconceptions than through her own voice and perspective which I found to be a curious method of storytelling. It’s almost like Barbara Baker really didn’t even want her story told, the ultimate wall flower in wanting to avoid any and all undue attention including any prospective readers.
One can understand why, to a degree, as the book comes to its tragic climax, although Hugh never really expounds on exactly what happened in Barbara’s past that sent her into Chelmsford, Essex, why someone would attack her and leave her in the boot (trunk) of her car for ten days. It’s clear in the writing that Ms. Baker does in fact want desperately to tell her story, to find connection and safety from a dark and haunting past, but abstains out of a desire not to burden others with her problems. It’s this abstention then that serves to deliver a most unexpected ending to the book.
At first glance and reading, this book might and does appear to be about nothing and no one of great interest. Who cares about an impoverished woman down on her luck, or the elder gay man who takes her and her son in out of the kindness of his heart? The wonderful thing about Stephen Hugh is that he cares, enough to tell their story in a curiously roundabout, meandering way so that the reader never anticipates the ending, and that the reader cannot help but be intrigued enough to continue turning the pages. However it’s this seemingly meandering style of delivering their story that gives us the innocuous yet powerful connections between the characters. Hugh shows us how family isn’t always just about blood, but about values and cherishing people for who they are without selfish ulterior motives. It’s hard to believe that people who would give selflessly of their homes actually exist, as Roy Sterling is so often judged, doubted and criticized for his warmth and generosity by the people closest to him, his uncle Harvey and sister Denise. And as he is so tragically mistaken by someone violent from Barbara’s past.
Hugh’s characters breathe from the pages, his lengthy stretches of dialog producing vivid sketches of people who live right next door or down the block, who suffer the same woes as the rest of us. Some of the rougher British accents are well demonstrated in the dialog, like Becky’s but because of the length of some of the passages those same accents became tedious and cumbersome. There were a few points in the reading where I was mentally whispering “oh come on, get to the point already!”
Overall, Barbara Baker is a novel that slides in under the radar, takes a while to warm up, but delivers some truly meaningful examinations of familial definitions and bonding. It makes you think without your awareness of that deep thinking, which makes up for the tendency to rely heavily upon dialog to establish pictures of the people living out the story. I wanted to give Barbara Baker a full five star rating couldn’t due to the already mentioned almost-negatives. Less dialog, more direct action, and further expounding on Ms. Baker’s past to substantiate the terrifying reappearance of her violent ex would have earned this book that extra star.

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