Nicola Barker has just won the Goldsmiths Prize for experimental fiction with her new novel H(a)ppy. She earned it. If anyone is writing fiction that deserves to be called experimental at the moment (the rubric for the prize is ‘fiction at its most novel’), it’s Nicola Barker. Everything she does, as far as I can tell, is completely original – her work has included medieval jesters, dyspeptic golf pros, Indian mystics, Paraguayan guitarists and David Blaine – and each novel finds its own completely new form.
In the case of H(a)ppy, that form is in a constant state of collapse and reinvention – to the extent that certain words in the text are printed in purple or pink, and whole pages turn into concrete poetry, typographical white noise or stuttering repetition. Kate Womersley’s Spectator review spoke of ‘something harsher and brisker than many novel-readers are used to‘.
True, Barker’s originality can be disconcerting. I’ve reviewed four of her books myself over the years, and I blush to notice that the opening paragraph of three of these reviews contains the word ‘strange’ and in one of them I’ve gone daringly off-piste with ‘odd’.
But she’s so, so much more than quirky. She’s engaged with the biggest themes, and seriously. It’s a mark of her excellence, her warmth and wit and intellectual fizz, her ability to be properly funny, that she has found so many enthusiastic, rather than merely admiring, readers.
I gather she was seriously in the doghouse with her editor at Cape this time, for insisting on hugely expensive colour printing for a handful of dozen words in the book. This prize means a h(a)ppy ending for all concerned.