Over the course of her 26-year writing career, Nicola Barker has defied categorisation. Is she a naturalist who produces subtle portraits of society’s loners and losers or a madcap surrealist with a mystical streak? Is she the most earnest of writers or a subversive piss-taker in the postmodern mode? And is she a pillar of the British literary scene or a cult author lurking on the fringes of the establishment? I Am Sovereign, her thirteenth novel, brings us no closer to answering such questions. But then, as her loquacious narrator wonders while trying to tease out the answer to a puzzle of her own, ‘Why should it be either/or? … Can’t fiction be exquisitely paradoxical?’
I Am Sovereign is the story – if ‘story’ is the right word – of a twenty-minute conversation between four characters at a house viewing in the coastal town of Llandudno in north Wales. Charles, a forty-year-old boutique teddy bear maker who wears T-shirts with ironic slogans (sample: ‘Every time you make a typo, the errorists win’) is hoping to sell his home to Wang Shu, a ‘ferocious-seeming Chinese woman’ who appears to speak no English. Accompanying this pair are Avigail, an estate agent, and Ying Yue, Wang Shu’s daughter and interpreter. The quartet engage in stilted conversation, debating whether local seagulls have been known to drop oyster shells onto people’s heads from the sky (spoiler alert: they have) and how best to arrange clothes on a drying rack. While these discussions are taking place, Avigail is suddenly overpowered by an apprehension of the divine unity of all things and Charles finds himself wondering what it would be like to have had Barack and Michelle Obama as parents (‘Barack thinks Charles is perfect just as he is’).
Barker has never taken much interest in the kind of well-read, well-bred characters who populate most literary novels: her previous books have featured a confidence trickster who feeds his fingers to owls and sleeps inside the carcass of a horse (The Behindlings), a pornographer and a paedophile living on the Isle of Sheppey (Wide Open) and a 19th-century Indian guru (The Cauliflower). But in I Am Sovereign she seems almost to have lost interest in characterisation altogether. Each individual’s backstory is dispensed with in a few terse lines, and emotion is breezily conveyed via the liberal use of italics (‘Is Avigail actually standing there, in his kitchen, accusing him – Charles – of being indecorous? Of being immodest? Finding fault with him? Undermining him?’) or capital letters (‘SHAME! … HUMILIATION! … FURY!’). At times this method calls to mind graphic novels in which a few broad pen strokes create marvellously vivid faces, but at other times it seems merely cartoonish.
Arguably the main character in I Am Sovereign is its rowdy, garrulous, increasingly exasperated narrator. Neither George Eliot’s lofty deity nor Henry James’s translucent ghost, she is more like a theatre director who is struggling to impose discipline on a cast of actors with a penchant for improv. When a new character, a 23-year-old Ethiopian called Gyasi ‘Chance’ Ebo, breaks into the text for no discernible reason, the narrator loses her rag altogether, interrupting proceedings to address the audience directly. Introducing herself as ‘The Author’, she asks us to ‘extend a measure of compassion and understanding towards herself/the text’, explaining that her characters are refusing to cooperate with her. (She adds that formal considerations have forced her to cut some ‘exquisite’ passages about Wang Shu that were ‘some of the finest work she has ever produced’. We will just have to take her word for it.)
Such metafictional high jinks won’t be to every reader’s taste, but there are some interesting ideas fizzing around here that speak directly to our current political confusion. All four main characters are attempting to assert their sovereignty over lives in which ‘home’ is a problematic idea: Charles’s Bulgarian mother and Welsh father never quite accepted him; Avigail has fled her Hasidic family; Wang Shu was ‘raised by a group of kindly but brutish prostitutes in Guangzhou’; Ying Yue doubts her ability to speak either Chinese or English fluently. Like Barker’s narrator, who has found it impossible to secure the borders of her text against interlopers like Ebo, they find that genuine self-determination is elusive, if not illusory.
The author-narrator is at pains to assure us that her characters ‘feel so alive to her’ as they crowd her writing desk: ‘they are poking her with their elbows, they are oppressing her with their demands, they are breathing down her neck’. But do they feel alive to us? Paradoxically, the more Barker shows us her characters running amok, refusing to submit to her authorial direction, the less they seem like free individuals and the more they resemble vehicles for a clever but highly artificial psychosocial allegory. I Am Sovereign is bursting with energy, compassion and humour. It is also maddening, occasionally opaque and extremely silly. At one point the author-narrator comments that she is not sure if she has created a work that is ‘extremely deep or unbelievably trite’. Why should it be either/or?