Nicola Barker: I Am Sovereign

Nicola Barker is having fun. She has waved good-bye to the traditional novel form and is experimenting left, right and centre. She is playing with words and characters, and we are the audience privileged to witness the joy and games.

You might deduce from that how much I enjoyed her latest ‘anti-novel’ I Am Sovereign. It is short, sharp, often hilarious and it might feel like it has less philosophical heft than some of her previous novels… but that’s not a bad thing. It is far less dense and therefore more accessible: in short, a great introduction for those who have yet to discover Barker’s work.

The action takes place over the 20 minutes or so that a typical house viewing might take place (although there are some things which delay the process, but still no longer than 30 minutes). The house in question is a rather run-down two up, two down on a grimy street in Llandudno and belongs to Charles’ late mother. Perhaps the reason the house isn’t selling is because Charles insists on ‘helping out with the viewings’, much to estate agent Avigail’s disgust, since this 40 year old, introverted teddy-bear maker is both chronically shy and prone to inappropriate over-sharing. For instance, he keeps mentioning an attempted burglary that took place at the property over 12 years ago, and forcing popcorn makers and other superfluous gadgets onto hapless prospective buyers.

When Wang Shu, a busy Chinese woman, constantly on the phone, and her daughter Ying Yue view the house, a mysterious and violent oyster shell incident occurs, which makes nearly all those present question their lives, their identities and their ambitions. And that’s before you even take into account their obsession with certain You Tube stars and self-development gurus. It all becomes funnier still and even more chaotic when the author grapples to regain her authority over her characters, as they disagree with her interpretation of things or even refuse to allow themselves to be portrayed at all in the book.

… it is necessary at this moment in the novella (henceforth referred to as I am Sovereign) to warn the reader that Nicola Barker (henceforth referred to as The Author) has been granted absolutely no access to the thoughts and feelings of the character Gyasi ‘Chance’ Ebo (henceforth referred to as The Subject). At his inception, The Subject seemed not only a willing, but an actively enthusiastic participant in the project, yet after several weeks of engagement became increasingly cynical and uncooperative, to the point of threatening to withdraw from the enterprise altogether if The Author deigned to encroach, unduly, upon his ‘interior life’.

You will find all the trademark Nicola Barker playing around with fonts and appearance of the text on the page. Yet somehow, it never feels too gimmicky. Things that might annoy me in other writers just make me giggle in this case.

You need to be in the right mood for a Nicola Barker novel, but when you meet it head-on, without knowing too much about it, without any expectations and an open frame of mind, what a beautiful collision (between fiction and reality) it makes!

8 thoughts on “Nicola Barker: I Am Sovereign”

  1. This one’s already on my list. I love the sound of a novel that takes place over twenty minutes, rather like Guđmundur Andri Thorsson’s And the Wind Sees All’s bike ride from a character’s home to the village hall. I do agree about being in the right mood for a Barker, though.

  2. Oh, this sounds like so much fun, Marina Sofia. And I lie the setting for this sort of a story. And now I’m very curious about the mysterious Incident of the Oyster Shell. It all sounds great, and something a person can richly enjoy if the mood is right.

    1. The scene with the oyster shell and the estate agent’s reaction, and then the mad cat… oh, there are a lot of farcical scenes, but not silly, if you know what I mean!

  3. Oh crikey, I think you may have sold me on this! I’ve never read Barker before, but this seems like the perfect entry point. Short, funny and relatively accessible. I may well have to indulge. (PS I’m partway through listening to the LRB podcast of their recent event with Barker and Ali Smith, a joy in itself.)

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