In this exploration of masculinity, class and identity, recently-divorced Barry Ashton serves as a civil engineer with the Royal Engineers corps in the British Army in 1999 Pristina, Kosovo, during the Kosovo War, where he moves between the present conflict and reflections on his past.
Within his limitations—and it is his limitations Adam Mars-Jones really wants to explore—Barry is a clever, funny and anecdotal narrator, and on one level this book is a cracking read. It is also written with a sharp social observation that could easily have made it an exercise in applied snobbery, but Barry is not just the butt of Mars-Jones’s condescension. The overall stance is more like compassion, which makes Batlava Lake a more complex and ultimately rather beautiful book.
... 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 ... 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.
The cliché-ridden, exclamation mark-littered style of Barry’s monologue is impressive in its consistency, even if it’s occasionally wearying ... Batlava Lake is heavily laden with quotidian and period detail, almost in spite of the wider scope offered by its international setting ... while we are clearly meant to find Barry’s bottomless narcissism funny...the jokes don’t always land as smoothly as in his previous fiction. Nevertheless, as a dark satire of 1990s liberal interventionism and the blithe ignorance that in reality underlay many peacekeeping missions, Batlava Lake is a suitably coruscating and intricately constructed piece of work.