The events of John Brown’s Body are centred around a small block of flats. Marise and her husband Tomelty are newly arrived as the book opens, Ralph has lived there for six years, all other residents are as close to permanent fixtures as is humanly possible. Tomelty notes that Ralph resembles John Brown, a man accused and cleared of a murder. Marise becomes convinced that Ralph is John Brown. Ralph, a clerk who at weekends lives under the rule of first his wife and then more powerfully her sister, and during the week lives in the block of flats, becomes obsessed with Marise. He starts to research John Brown and then his personality moves toward that of the murderer. One of the characters ends up in a wardrobe. The end.
In her introduction to the edition I bought, A.S. Byatt says that the “meanings and inter-relations never become merely schematic, a writer’s clever game. People and events are quite sufficiently real”, but I tend to disagree. The characters feel contrived, or more accurately heightened, to suit the story. Everyone does things with dismay or anguish; even normal things like talking – “He looked at her in anguish”.
At times Marise feels naive, at others she is childlike, childish, insane, lobotomised, or even severely mentally handicapped. The extremes of her unknowing depend largely on how big a potential plot hole they need to fill. Her thinking that Ralph is John Brown relies on him not aging in the decades since his crime. Tomelty is a cockney wheeler-dealer barra’ boy when it suits the story and not when it doesn’t. Ralph is indecisive to the point of ineptitude. And none of them feel totally human. I would be happier if this were a writer’s clever game – all fiction is a writer’s clever game – because then at least I wouldn’t be expected to worry for the characters. It would be understood that they were understood to be signs. We are all big children now. We can cope with that.
So, a rather disappointing start to 1970. A book of its time perhaps. An experiment in heightened realism. There is nothing wrong with that – sometimes pushing an old method to an extreme produces work more interesting than finding a new method – and many readers will be seduced by Barker’s slightly eccentric view of our world. It didn’t work for me though. It is a bit like Giant Cadbury’s Buttons. You think they are going to be better than Cadbury’s Buttons but they some how just aren’t.