Just like I know I’ll never paint the next Mona Lisa or compose the next blockbuster theme song for a Disney movie, I know I’ll never write like Mark Barry. Whenever I finish one of his books, I have to stop and remind myself that I’m a writer too. Just not, you know…a writer—someone who can make every book different, every character compelling, and every plot both irrelevant and enthralling the way he does.
Just after my first book had been scheduled for publication, a nice man at Heathrow’s passport control asked me what I do. On past trips, I had replied that I was retired, but most people are (flatteringly) surprised I’ve already packed it in. I once tried telling the truth—I’m an unemployed dog-walker—but oddly enough, the passport troll at Gatwick found that answer alarming. (The phrase, “Yes, I can make you leave the country…” actually entered that conversation.)
But could I claim to be an actual writer? I was pretty sure I’d passed The Tests (especially because I made them up here). Plus I had an answer to “What do you write?” I had bookmarks printed up with my latest book. (Want one? Want twenty?) And best of all, I had something to tell the nice man at passport control. “I’m a writer,” I said, all casual. Passport Man replied that he writes fairy tales for his grandchildren and they love them. Taxi Lady said she used to write stories back in the day, on an actual typewriter. Genius Man at the computer store said he wrote fanfiction. Grocery Man from Tesco guessed that he would make a good character for my next book.
Only thing is—the dog still knows I’m an unemployed dog walker. And I’ll never write like Mark Berry.
I swore that I would never go home, but in the end, I had no choice. I had to confront what happened. And them too. It was going be icky. And totally scary.
Carol Prentice left Wheatley Fields to attend university in Manchester and not once did she return in four years. Her beloved father visited her whenever he could, but then he passed away and it was up to her to sort his affairs.
She could have done this from a distance, but a woman can run to the far corners of the earth, but, in the end, she can never escape herself.
She had to come home: There was no other choice.
Taking a job at a bookshop for the duration, she befriends Steve – an older man who looks like a wizard and who knows everything in the world.
Carol quickly encounters the demons that forced her to leave in the first place – including Toby, the raffish local villain, with whom she shares the most horrifying of secrets and whose very existence means evil and mayhem for everyone around. Especially the lovable Steve.
Carol finds herself in the middle of a war between the two men:
A war which can only have one victor.
Soon, she wishes she had never come home.
But by then it was too late.
Much too late.
- Book Title: A Shiny Coin For Carol Prentice
- Author: Mark Barry
- Genre: Contemporary Fiction
- Length: 313 pages
- Release Date: 18 March, 2017 (Green Wizard Publishing)
- Purchase Links: Amazon UK| Amazon US
My Review: 5 out of 5 stars for A Shiny Coin for Carol Prentice by Mark Barry
According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Narcissus was a youth of such surpassing beauty that he spurned admirers, including the infatuated nymph Echo. His only love was given to his beautiful face, causing the heartbroken Echo to fade away until only her voice was left. But the impossibility of his reflection ever returning his passion eventually led to Narcissus’ destruction, and he wasted away as well.
In Mark Barry’s retelling of the story, Carol Prentice left her home and her father four years earlier to attend University, but actually to escape from the devastating events of her past, and especially from the deceptively beautiful Toby. The only way she’s been able to cope was to disappear, to focus both physically and emotionally on appearances and details rather than on feeling…anything. “I sometimes think they murdered me and I am a ghost.”
But when her father dies unexpectedly, Carol feels compelled to return home. She develops The Plan, a mysterious idea that will allow her revenge on those who hurt her in the past. Carol takes a job in a bookstore managed by Steve, a middle-aged intellectual who becomes first her friend and then her ally in the war which appears to start over a mispriced comic book. As the disagreement between Carol’s old adversary Toby and her new friend Steve escalates into all out war, she realizes two things. First, Toby is probably speaking the truth when he tells Carol, “I can no more stop now than a runaway train can stop itself plummeting over the cliff.” And second, the war is not, and never has been, about the price of a comic book. Instead, it’s something that their parents started. “It may have been a war that would never end until the circle was squared.”
Carol admits that she may well be an unreliable narrator—”I was probably lying to myself, even then.” But even so, her descriptions of everything from her fabulous vintage/goth outfits to the English spring weather help to set the scene. “For late spring, it was cool, and rainy, an unbroken, ironed graphite sheet above, a breeze pregnant with moisture.” Forget your gamboling lambs and fluffy clouds—this is the England we all know. Her words paint what should be a picture-perfect English village, the kind the BBC loves to film, full of wealthy, beautiful people. But she shows it from the inside out, a Stepford landscape of assumed right and privilege.
Even a terrific writer like Mark Berry does, very occasionally, get it wrong. I can’t believe that Carol—either in her deliberately acquired bubblehead voice or as her ironic intelligence shines through—would ever speak a sentence with “women nowadays.” (“…women nowadays didn’t care about personalities…”) Still, the description that follows is pretty awesome and Carol-like “It was all about looks for them, especially around the town, a narcissistic jamboree fashioned from miles of silvered glass, endless selfies and constant self-reflection.” But wait! So it isn’t just Toby who is Narcissus? Apparently, the whole town is enchanted by their own reflection, and thus they all need to be punished.
Of course, the face of the war and targeting of Steve means the visible enemy on the battlefield actually IS Toby. “…his narcissus face, his reflection in the pool.” Carol realizes that she’s allowed Toby to make her disappear. “I had begun to realize something: my recent life had been all about Toby since that night.” She’s spent four years as a shade who can only repeat what those around her say. But now she needs to wake up. To extract her revenge, Carol needs to be seen.
Carol’s response is to become her old neighbors’ polar opposite. Her blonde hair is religiously dyed as black as possible. Instead of designer tweeds, she wears vintage gothic and biker boots. And instead of their “…cut glass, foppish, ultimately English accent, as smooth as silk and as creamy as expensive soap…”, she deliberately fills her sentences with the jarring one-size-fits-all negative “unawesome” and the incessant brain-fart “like”.
Within Carol’s first-person narration, unreliable as it is, we only meet her ideas about who the other characters really are. Because she needs him to be so, for example, Carol makes Steve—failed writer and musician, frequent drunk, and manager of a used bookshop that could never have survived without the charitable foundation backing it—into her “rock”, the one person she’s allowed to see her as more than a ghost. Even when Steve and her friend Pippa try to hold up other examples of people who’ve had experiences more horrific than hers, Carol ignores any hints that her own past doesn’t make her a special snowflake. After telling about being gang-raped as a teen, Pippa cautions, “Don’t pity me. Just understand. Don’t walk around the bloody world thinking it’s all about little you.”
There have been works of literature where the writing itself provided healing and closure. Long Day’s Journey Into Night was Eugene O’Neil’s attempt to explain the breakdown of his dysfunctional family. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez reveals the forbidden historical reality of the United Fruit Company’s murderous legacy through fictional fantasy. A Shiny Coin for Carol Prentice isn’t one of those stories. Steve has tried writing, and it didn’t work. The author himself, Mark Barry, shows up in a book cameo, tells a somewhat irrelevant anecdote, and wanders off. An unimpressed Carol observes, “We could have used the extra pair of hands.”
Mark Barry, the writer character, had failed Carol. Steve’s lectures about writing failed too, especially when he talked about shades of grey among villains. Toby already knows this truth, that the sides and the outcomes are black and white, no shades of gray in between. Steve doesn’t know, so he can’t win. Carol doesn’t want to know, but in order to win, she becomes someone who believes. That’s the polarization that the concept of War allows, the absolution for any action they may take. “Like, whatever we do to guys as bad as these, they will deserve. There’s going to be no guilt or, like, beating ourselves up afterwards.”
Because she’s made Steve into her rock, because she’s allowed him to SEE her, Carol believes she can communicate with him. Just one person in her universe. But that means she has to accept responsibility for what happens to Steve. If it’s all because of her, then it has to mean everything. Both Toby and Carol are beautiful, but they are still just the reflections of a horrible cycle started by their parents, the truest forms of Narcissus incapable of love. When she unleashes The Plan, Carol needs to make them all SEE her at last, even if only across a battlefield.
But the War isn’t over. Sure, our unreliable narrator Carol intends to declare victory, change her name, and get on with her life. But she’s still trapped, waiting for approval she can never get. Not from her father who’s dead, not from Toby’s father who’s on the other side of the war, and not from Steve, who might never be the rock she needs. Instead Carol has to take victory where she can get it. Toby must become the Old Carol—”Reclusive, friendless and shunned.” The rest must become a love story. But it’s not so much a love story as a story about how to rewrite history and call it love.
At the end, Carol muses about what writing can and can’t do. Without the war in which he is collateral damage, Carol tells Steve he would “…still be listening to Pink Floyd at night on your sofa with your feet up reading your Martin Amis and all those brilliant writers who don’t give a poo about story because for you, and for them, it’s all about writing as art.”
A Shiny Coin for Carol Prentice is another Mark Barry masterpiece. All the epic themes—love, hatred, war, betrayal, greed, heroism, tragedy, victory, and loss—play out on a small stage in human scale. The beautiful, flawed characters from the tragic Narcissus legend are doomed to play out their mistakes as their reflected images become their realities. Five stars aren’t enough.
Contact Links for Mark Barry
*I received this book from the publisher or author to facilitate an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.*