I am Sovereign by Nicola Barker
I have a big pile of books read to be reviewed, yet the moment I finished this novella in bed this morning I had to write about it! (Let’s hope it gets my reviewing mojo back on track). I’d hoped to read it during Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca, but got waylaid. Then, when someone on Twitter a couple of days ago was asking about books other than the obvious Mrs Dalloway etc that were entirely set within short timescales, I was reminded of Barker’s most recent, I am Sovereign, and got it off the shelf to be my next read.
I’ve not read many of Barker’s books, but I think I own them all, because the four that I have read have been so wonderful, even the ones she herself describes as ‘naturally frivolous’ like Burley Cross Postbox Theft (reviewed here). She hooked me properly back when I read Clear (pre-blog) which is centred about the stunt that magician David Blaine did being suspended in a glass box on the South Bank. In a perfect quote, her protagonist described the scene as,
“it’s like the embankment is a toilet and Blaine is just the scented rim-block dangling in his disposable plastic container from the bowl at the top.”
Clear was also one of the ‘frivolous’ ones, but the sarf-Londoner in me felt in tune with this book, and I had watched Blaine’s stunt on C4. I also read her early novels Wide Open and Behindlings many moons ago and remember her as an author to watch even then – I need to revisit them eventually. However, I have the Booker shortlisted Darkmans, Booker longlisted The Yips, In the Approaches, the hilarious The Cauliflower, and the Goldsmiths prize winner H(A)PPY to read first. But back to I am Sovereign…
The entire novella takes place during a twenty minute house-viewing in Llandudno. Charles has to sell the house he inherited from his mother. He’s a bit of a hoarder, makes bespoke teddy bears for a living, and wears T-shirts with ironic slogans on. He needs to turn his life around and is struggling to get into a self-help motivational course on his computer hosted by a guru who has it all. Avigail is the young Jewish estate agent, who’s battled against anorexia. She is showing a Chinese woman Wang Shu and her daughter Ying Yue around, wishing that Charles had absented himself from the viewing. Wang Shu speaks no English and is glued to her phone the whole time, Ying Yue is the less favoured of her offspring, and is a poor translator for her mother. Morpheus is Charles’s hairless sphynx cat. The viewing itself is a straight-forward slapstick comedy of misunderstandings, things getting knocked over etc.
But it’s how Barker tells the story that is so innovative. Firstly, it’s written in the present tense, as you might expect for a novel with a compressed timeline set over just twenty minutes which tick away through the course of the text. The rest is expressed through the mental outpourings of the characters, primarily Charles and Avigail, with contributions from Ying Yue, and voice-over asides describing the characters’ actions. Barker’s stream of consciousness style is mercifully well-spaced, letting the characters breathe, and start a new line or paragraph with each new thought. The pages pass by at speed in a blur of their innermost thoughts, with some font size changes and capitalisations as needed for emphasis. It’s gloriously quirky and hilarious, and being let into the minds of her characters, we understand them totally in these few minutes.
Then, around three-quarters of the way through, with four minutes and twelve seconds to go, comes an interruption in the form of an explanatory section by ‘The Author’. She explains that a subsidiary character who was just introduced wasn’t playing ball, refusing to submit to The Author’s plans, so The Author has to change everything, as she has had to do already in the novella, although the reader won’t have realised it. And from this point onwards, we careen towards the end with The Author in control.
You’ll either love or hate this book. You know me, I love experimental styles, general quirkiness and metafiction in a novel. The immediacy and sheer fun of this novella was totally up my street. I adored it and can’t wait to get into her backlist. (10/10)
Source: Own copy. Nicola Barker, I Am Sovereign (W&N, 2019). BUY at Blackwell’s (affiliate link, free UK P&P)