Barney Conroy is the literary Frank Spencer of our time.
For those too young to remember the classic British sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, Frank Spencer was the hapless but well-meaning protagonist who despite his best intentions, and there was no doubting the goodness of his heart, always ended up in one excruciatingly cringe-inducing predicament after another.
He meant well but never quite managed to do well; well, not immediately anyway, with the obvious, most trouble-free option never the one he opted to pursue.
While Barney Conroy doesn’t leave quite the same physical devastation in his wake, the net effect for those nearest and dearest, most especially the long-suffering love of his life and former PR colleague, Gloria, is the same, with emotional messiness and misunderstandings the order of the day.
Much of his inability to get things right the first time, or to be honest the fourth or fifth time, stems from a chronic lack of self belief, the origin of which is thoughtfully examined in the heartfelt and humorous The Emily Dilemma by Guy Sigley, who first introduced the amusingly hapless Barney in the appropriately-titled Barney: A Novel.
The thing about Barney is he’s actually a sweet, talented, intelligent and EQ-savvy young man in his thirties, and in this sequel, which actually works brilliantly, folding in old characters and haunts without once feeling even remotely like a retread, that is pretty obvious from the word go.
Everyone but Barney, and that includes us dear readers, his famous TV actor mother Audrey, girlfriend Gloria, and friends Achal and Mike, can see it; scrape away the Frank Spencer-esque blunders and Barney is a decent, caring guy trying to do his best.
He may not think so, and to be fair all the self-sabotaging negativity does go a considerable way to undercutting his many sterling qualities far more often than they should, but he is a good guy, something that comes to the fore when he unexpectedly ends up the temporary carer for 4 year old Emily.
Initially Barney wants nothing to do at first with the adorably charming, breakfast-obsessed, TV-watching tyke who has a propensity for renaming herself as often as Barney has moments of crippling, hilariously-articulated self doubt, but as you might suspect, all the cuteness can’t just hang in the ether, and soon Barney finds himself falling for the young girl in need of a good, stable, loving home (which she has after a fashion but not quite).
But while a normal person would immediately confess to the love of their life why they are suddenly in possession of a schedule-upsetting, potential job-derailing, bundle of cuteness – it involves a long-lost ex-girlfriend named Alice, a sudden disappearance and a hygiene-challenging visit to the park (it’s possible Barney is a teeny-tiny germaphobe; OK way more than that) – Barney spins an ever more elaborate web of lies which come close to costing him the engagement he never thought would happen.
In an attempt to ensure Gloria doesn’t have an excuse to leave him – he is convinced this almost-certain outcome will happen sooner or later; see, not a lot of self-confidence there! – he ends up concocting a fantastical tale of half-truths, outright lies and chili-laden faked scenarios.
On one level you’re cringing like an audience member at a particularly bad night of stand up comedy – pertinent since Barney sees himself as a Seinfeld or Louis C. K. in the making – but on another level, and this is testament to how well-wrought Barney is as a character under Sigley’s nuanced and talented hands, you can kind of see yourself making some of the decisions if enough panic-fuelled adrenaline was coursing through your veins.
And that is what makes Barney, for all his poor decision-making and wretchedly punishing inner monologue-ing (much of which is absolutely freaking hilarious), such a lovable guy to spend time with; we may not necessarily get ourselves into the messes that Barney does, but we can see our potential to do so, making him an entirely relatable and delightful character.
Throw in the fact that he is thoroughly good and decent man, who just needs to know that he is a thoroughly good and decent man, and you have one of the most engaging, sweet, and funny (did we mention he has a brilliantly hilarious turn of phrase pretty much all the time?) protagonists to ever grace a book.
Sigley once again gives us a crackingly-fast plot that moves reasonably quickly without once sacrificing decent character interactions or a fairly health dose of self-reflection (pretty much all Barney’s since the novel is told in the first person), all while making room for a neverending stream of firecracker hilarious bon mots that always merge seamlessly with the book’s more serious moments.
The Emily Dilemma is not just proof positive that sequels can be every bit as engaging as their predecessor, but that in the right hands, and Sigley’s are as adroit as they come, they can make us fall in love with a character all over again, leaving us hoping that there are many more books to come in the series.