I am Sovereign by Nicola Barker


Nicola Barker is a tricky writer. We have followed her through books about the adventures of a Medieval jester in the 15th Century, to the life of an Indian Guru narrated by his unfortunate nephew. Recently there was the prize-winning, H(a)ppy, set in a dystopic future, where her interest in playing with fonts and text colours was given free reign. The last book of hers I read was her 2014 novel, In the Approaches, which was possibly about a tiny young girl who was a saint, who may have performed miracles, or about IRA terrorism, or about reconciliation. I do know it had many pages where a parrot spoke, ‘Oh oh oh oh…’ and lines of other semi articulate sounds. I had, therefore, some sense of what lay in store when I came to her latest book (which she describes as a novella) I am Sovereign.

You can decide if it would appeal to you. The story concerns Charles, tall, forty, long hair with a centre part, who makes bespoke teddy bears, with which he is increasingly reluctant to part. The action is said to take place in twenty minutes over a viewing of his house in Llandudno, which is for sale. The other players are the estate agent, Avigail (not Abigail) who comes from a Hasidic Jewish family, whom she has left, but who seems to having a transcendent Kabbalisic experience in the course of this story. For her, ‘Everything is Illuminated’. The potential purchasers, Wing Chu the mother, something a caricature of a Chinese woman, dyed hair, rude, talking on her phone nonstop, and her daughter Ying Yue.

At first the words, I am Sovereign, are repeated by Charles, who has low self-esteem, caused by a ‘Toxic Super Ego’. He is trying, with a great deal of inner resistance, to follow the path laid out by Richard Grannon’s Silencing the Inner Critic, which seems to employ a form of NLP. His inner monologue shows how much time he spends castigating himself for being weak and ineffective.

The play with text is here again, font size and spacing very much reducing the number of words in the novella. Half of one page is given up to Charles’ self-lacerating words, ‘SH…..IIII…..TTTT’

After the introduction of another character, who demands a different font, objects to the description of his clothes and who eventually demands to be removed from the text, the book is invaded by the author and finishes with her discussion of her attitude to her characters and to writing. Metafiction takes over.

It dawns on The Author, as she types this, that the room as she describes it (Charles’ work room) is exactly like the tiny study in which she herself habitually sits to write. So these four characters are actually here, are they not? In the Author’s tiny study, keeping the Author company?… Look! They are crashing into her bookshelves, they are poking her with their elbows, they are oppressing her with their demands. They are breathing down her neck. p 208

I thought the plot and characters had a great deal of potential, but ultimately, they became so manipulated by the author, it was not possible to retain interest in them or even really care what happened to them.

I am of course way off piste in my assessment. The Guardian loves this book. But I just have to ask myself what we can expect from Nicola Barker in her next book. A volume of empty pages, drawings of the author, pages of question marks? We shall see.

5 thoughts on “I am Sovereign by Nicola Barker

  1. I feel I ought to try a Nicola Barker at some point, just to experience her for myself. She’s certainly a very appealing and erudite speaker. If you haven’t come across it, you might be interested in this recording of an event she did with Ali Smith at the LRB Bookshop in London. It’s well worth a listen!

    [audio src="https://media.londonreviewbookshop.co.uk/2019-08-30-nicola-barker-ali-smith.mp3" /]

  2. Thanks Jacqui. All came through. The link doesn’t work, but I can probably access through the LRB site as I subscribe. I wouldn’t start with this book if you are new to Nicola Barker. She is becoming more minimalist with every book. I liked The Cauliflower and my trusty colleague was very taken with Darkmans.

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