Book Review

One Thing by Xanthi Barker

deeply affecting, affectingly deep

cw: mental illness, suicide ideation, cancer, grief, death

I read an early draught of Xanthi Barker’s One Thing about six years ago. An age ago, a lifetime ago, a fucking life cycle ago.

Remembering it as blisteringly devastating, I was deliberately holding off reading it in its final published form (released by Open Pen in 2019) until I was in a more stable and hopeful stage of life and thus less susceptible to its pounding resonant catharsises (is that the right plural?), but as that has never happened and – let’s be honest – almost certainly never will or, at least – the lie/improbability that I reiterate because I’m too indecisive and weak and scared of pain to attempt to kill myself even tho I rationally and correctly know it’s 100% the best thing to do 🤷 – won’t happen for many years yet, and because I read all those other Open Pen books a few weeks ago, I thought it was time to read this one, too. One Thing by Xanthi Barker.

This is another novelette, so you can consider it a very long short story (if you’re one of those sick freaks who considers short stories anything other than incomplete novels) or a very short novella (which is itself a short novel) or even, if you’d prefer to do so and maybe I do, a very very very short novel.

Like all (well, most) of the books released by Open Pen, One Thing is a small pocket size paperback, comfortably under 100 pages and featuring the simple yet emotive artwork of Pierre Buttin on the cover. It is, as they all are (especially the first one they released), a pleasant and pleasing object. The content, though, is far from being light and breezy and easy to hold.

Barker’s novel is about Len, a 58 year old skilled construction worker, a roofing specialist, whose life is spiralling after he receives the news that Violet – his ex wife who walked out on him and their infant daughter twenty years ago – has died.

Len never got over his ex, never remarried, never moved on, never stopped loving, never stopped hoping for a reconciliation and a return to what they had. He is, of course, delusional, and tho Violet’s second marriage to a staid – but affluent(ish) – accountant named Ivan is almost certainly no more romantic or happy than theirs was, decades earlier, it was the marriage Violet chose to both live – and die – while remaining inside.

Len has been – officially – not invited to the funeral, and he chooses to take advantage of this by breaking into Violet and Ivan’s (now just Ivan’s) house when he knows it will be empty. Len only wants to find and to take one thing – the ruby engagement ring that once belonged to his grandmother and that he gave to Violet when they were younger and in love. He doesn’t find the ring, but he does find a bottle of vodka stashed in a drawer and drinks it, passing out briefly before waking up to a wake in full sway.

This isn’t, as that perhaps sounds, soap operatic, melodramatic, OTT or at all silly. The involved detail Barker includes to describe Len’s housebreaking (and the locks he would never attempt to pick), and the detailed description of domestic objects are all pointed and clear and evocative.

Len moves through not just a house, but a home, that is not his. He laments the life that Violet and Ivan had together, even as he sees that it was unspectacular, and knows that his and Violet’s life would have been unspectacular, too. But he wishes he’d had the tedium, the quotidian, the emptiness, of the life he sees in that house.

The smell of the mass of flowers sent to Ivan follow Len through the house, even as he deliberately avoids rooms of true intimacy: he won’t go upstairs because he cannot bear to see their bed; when he needs to piss he goes outside and does it against the side of the house, rather than see their once-shared bathroom.

Len doesn’t find the ring, but he doesn’t look for it everywhere. He can’t look for it everywhere; he is unable to explore. Just as he has been unable to explore his own life in the decades since Violet chose to not be with him.

Barker, who is a millennial intellectual and not a 58-year old roofer, writes Len with a level of sympathy and reality-feeling-ness that is impressive and striking. There is a level of emotional intellect and fluency in the writing here that is not common to find, especially in writing by the young(ish) about the old(ish).

Len is not pathetic or a loser, and tho, yes, Barker depicts him breaking into his dead wife’s house during her funeral looking for a ring he gave her half his life ago, the way in which he justifies this to himself carries weight: Barker’s Len is not acting thoughtlessly or emotionlessly, he is instead acting with thoughts based on emotions that he is unhealthily having. It is sad and, yes, it is a little embarrassing to still “be in love with” someone who rejected you 20 years ago, but Barker’s Len is not a figure of fun here; Len is not a dumb saddo who is mocked and bullied by the author, he is instead someone with nothing that matters to him, who is fixated on the point in his past when he last did have something in his life that mattered to him.

There’s something, I dunno, noble in Barker’s depiction of Len.

Yes, he is deluded, yes, he is lonely and, yes, he really should have gotten over his ex wife by now, but Barker writes Len as someone who is utterly overwhelmed and undone by this personal failure.

He hasn’t gotten over his ex-wife, and this is what happens when her death (from cancer, so not a sudden shocking accident) exerts an irrevocable reality upon his decades-long failure to deal with this historic break up.

It’s a spectacular piece of weightily moving prose and – unless you too are trying to avoid sad things until you’re happier (you never will be, stop living a lie) – then I highly recommend giving this a read!

Order direct from Open Pen when their website is working again or follow the link to order from my favourite local(ish) independent bookstore. is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

0 comments on “One Thing by Xanthi Barker

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: