Offcomer by Jo Baker

A delicately wrought debut novel about self-identity in a big, rough-edged world.


Published in the United States for the first time, Offcomer is the striking first novel by Jo Baker (Longbourn). In Belfast, Claire Thomas is struggling with a messy relationship with an overstressed and self-important academic; a degrading, beer-stained job in a second-rate pub; loneliness; and self-harming. Baker presents Claire’s story in disjointed chronology, beginning mid-crisis, jumping back to when she meets her troublesome philosopher boyfriend, Alan, for the first time, then forward to the aftermath of a minor breakdown, as she travels home to confront her mother about the misrepresented mysteries of their shared past.

Claire, a recent college graduate floundering through early adulthood, is looking for an identity, a place in her world. In the dialect of Lancashire, an “offcomer” is an outsider or a nonlocal. Her family history is shadowy, fractured and geographically unstable; true to her family’s offcomer status, she can’t get comfortable, can’t decide who she is: “Claire saw herself reflected in a hundred different ways, distorted, fragmented, multiplicitous…. She couldn’t begin to resolve… discarded, throw-away ideas of Claire.” One of Offcomer‘s artistic feats is that of perspective. By shifting slightly from Claire’s point of view to Alan’s, for example, Baker subtly asks questions about the truth and nature of their self-images. Claire’s specific trials and disconnected family history are a vital part of her coming-of-age; her story is a universal one made fresh in Baker’s creative hands. Thoughtful, somber and perceptive, Offcomer will resonate with all who have searched for home.

This review originally ran in the December 23, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 8 bags.

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