Review: “I Am Sovereign” by Nicola Barker

Reading the British author Nicola Barker’s new novella is rather like watching an Olympic gymnast take the stage for their final floor routine. “I Am Sovereign” is so audacious, so confidently written, that any step misplaced, anything less than perfection, and you’d be forgiven for feeling a guilty pleasure if the author’s literary acrobatics backfired. But Barker is such an utterly impressive writer that you can only look on in awe as she maneuvers effortlessly from one grinning stunt to the next. The novella’s final chapters round the display off with the fiction equivalent of a triple backflip — landed, of course, well within the lines — and it is a total pleasure to behold.

“I Am Sovereign” is a tightly choreographed work, the whole book taking place over the 20 minutes of a house viewing in Llandudno, Wales. The author dips in and out of the minds of its small cast of characters: the owner Charles, a tall, awkward wearer of slogan t-shirts; uptight estate agent Avigail (who is absolutely not called Abigail); the prospective buyer, Wang Chu, who spends the novella’s entire 200 pages making very important phone calls in Chinese, and her daughter, Ying Yue, who appreciates silence above all else. Nothing much happens, and everything happens; the fridge gets a thorough inspection, Charles is reprimanded for his inefficient use of the drying rack, and Avigail has a spiritual epiphany. As the book’s final pages point out, “this novella is either extremely deep or unbelievably trite.” Or maybe both.

Barker, whose last book was the Goldsmiths Prize-winning novel “H(A)PPY” (2017), exploits the attributes of the novella form to their full advantage. The book moves nimbly, constructing its fictional world at a brisk pace and padding its characters with just enough flesh to draw the reader in. Then (spoiler alert!), the dismantling begins. The perfectly orchestrated scene starts to self-destruct, featuring cameo appearances from the intruding “Author” (in capital letters) and her long-suffering copyeditor (still battling away with the “Avigail”/“Abigail” autocorrect). “Post-modernist” is perhaps too weighty a word for such a joyous denouement, but, whatever you want to call it, “I Am Sovereign” makes many of the great masters of experimental literature look like they were just trying too hard.

As the novella unravels, the book’s title acquires a new significance. Until this point, “I Am Sovereign” is one of the many self-help mantras that infiltrate the characters’ thoughts, beseeching them to embrace their most authentic selves, and live present, positive and boundaried lives. Awkward Charles is fighting his “Toxic Super-Ego” thanks to the infinite wisdom of Richard Grannon — a real-life, self-branded “Spartan Life Coach,” as a quick Google search flags up. Meanwhile, Avigail and Ying Yue are disciples of the (equally non-fictional) YouTuber, Lucy Molloy, whose everywoman persona and impossibly glossy hair create just the right combination of aspiration and relatability. Barker’s side glance at the world of life coaching, mindfulness masterclasses and their accompanying discourses is, in itself, very funny, but it gains new proportions when it is co-opted into the book’s subsequent narrative coup. As “The Author” comes crashing into the final pages, thrusting her auctorial strings at the reader and disassembling her characters in the process, she asks: Who is in the driving seat? Who controls the narratives of our own lives? And how far do others shape those stories? The theme of sovereignty thus draws parallels between fiction and reality, and, along the way, muddies the water between the two. It’s a clever sleight of hand, and one of many in Barker’s triumphant new novella. 

“I Am Sovereign” by Nicola Barker is published by William Heinemann (£12.99). 

Article published on Blouin Artinfo.