When was the last time Nicola Barker let you down as a reader? The answer is never. Britain’s greatest living author juggles humour, warmth and oddness better than any other out there at the moment. Even more impressive, she has an uncanny ability to shift between genres, from the domestic weirdness of Darkmans to the metafictional tangle of relationships in her Booker nominated In the Approaches (featuring a misgendered parrot narrator who actually serves a vital purpose in the novel). Last year, her novel The Cauliflower depicted the life of Sri Ramakrishna without really ever talking directly about him. Her latest novel, H(a)ppy is described as a post-post apocalyptic novel, but from the outset its abundantly clear what Barker has gone and done and that’s breathe new life into the dystopian genre.
H(a)ppy tells the story of Mira A, a girl living in a world in which every thought and every moment of your life is recorded and analysed on The Graph.
“It shows us how In Balance we are: as a person (our physical and mental health), as a small community (a community of skills, a community of friends, a community of consumers, a community of thought) and as a broader society – as a race, as a planet, as a galaxy.”
Mira A is concerned, because she is H(a)ppy – those extra brackets around the ‘A’ being of horrible significance that something is wrong. It stems back to her discovery of the music of Paraguayan guitarist Agustin Barrios (whom Barker suggests you listen to during the reading of the novel) and ever since, blips have begun to appear in her narrative on The Graph. Particularly emotional words, words evoking fervour, excitement, love; appear red, purple and blue, warning those reading The Graph that Mira A is about to experience an Excess of Emotion. The words on the pages of the book turn those colours too. There is red, blue and purple text spotted about on every page. When Mira A begins to have strong feelings towards a young man named Kite, his name begins to appear a different colour and the embarrassment causes her to try never mentioning his name again.
It’s a neat conceit that on the surface of things does seem a little gimmicky, but what Barker has done cannily makes the reader complicit in the world of the novel. H(a)ppy is Mira A’s Graph. It is her narrative and we are judging it as we read. When words are flagged up we question why and we make assessments of her based on those judgements. In typical Barker fashion this metafictional thread through the book becomes a source of humour, in which characters ask Mira A to kindly remove them from her narrative, only to find those characters vanish in the next chapter and never spoken of again. It’s also a pretty decent precis on the life of Agustin Barrios if you’re interested.
Any Cop?: H(a)ppy is definitely a book that threatens to disappear inside its own high concept, but in the end it succeeds in being a fascinating book and a strange entry into the dystopian canon.