The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker – review

Barker’s fictionalised biography of Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna is typically audacious but a little hit and miss

When, in 1965, Christopher Isherwood published his biography of the mid-19th century Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna (Ramakrishna and His Disciples), it was to general head-scratching. “It is still a bit difficult to regard Herr Issyvoo as a guru fancier,” one critic sniffed, a response that Isherwood recorded resignedly in his own memoir of spiritual questing, My Guru and His Disciple (1980). Nicola Barker’s interest in Ramakrishna, whose life forms the meat of The Cauliflower, is less of a surprise.

Her Booker-shortlisted doorstopper Darkmans featured a character obsessed with Edward IV’s court jester; In the Approaches, her most recent novel, was a Sussex-set love story that read like the ADHD offspring of Wodehouse and Beckett and centred on the mystery surrounding a half-Aboriginal thalidomide child who may or may not have been a saint. The moon-faced Ramakrishna – an illiterate, mischief-making mimic given to dressing in women’s clothes and falling, slapstick-style, into spiritual ecstasies at inopportune moments – must have seemed like gold to Barker.

Whether or not readers of The Cauliflower will feel the same degree of enthusiasm is less certain. If you’re a Barker fan then fear not, the usual exclamatory italics, sound effects, digressions, ellipses and authorial rug pulling are all here, propelling a narrative that incorporates, among other things, Ramakrishna’s haiku-like pronouncements, verses from The Song of Songs (we learn in passing that Ramakrishna embraced both Christianity and Islam in his later years), and an elbow-nudging extract from Bleak House flagging up similarities between the seemingly guileless guru and the monstrous sponger Harold Skimpole. (It should be said that the word “salt” appears in bold throughout – a reminder both of the part that commodity has played in history and, it seems, the metaphorical pinch we’re to apply when turning the pages.)

Ramakrishna’s own Skimpole-like unworldliness is the source of a perpetual headache for his devoted nephew-cum-caretaker Hriday, the real hero of the piece. But central too is Rani Rashmoni, the hugely wealthy widowed businesswoman founder of the Dakshineswar Kali temple, near Kalkota, where Ramakrishna was priest for much of his life.

So remarkable a character was “the Rani” that she was the subject of a 1955 Bengali-language biopic, and episodes from another film bleed disconcertingly and tantalisingly into Barker’s narrative, warping its fabric most notably when a 19th-century swift is supposedly fitted with a tiny camera. (It turns out that this piece of kit is called a “cauliflower”, an apparent nod to the guru’s appetite for, and digestive intolerance of, that vegetable.) These are pages that showcase Barker at her best: the hairpin, full-throttle flight of an audacious imagination. The rest of the book – described by its author in typically knowing fashion as “truly little more than the sum of its many parts” – is more hit and miss: intriguing, exhilarating, perplexing and, just sometimes, trying. But then if The Cauliflower does have a moral, it’s that satisfaction isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: as Barker devotees know well, fulfilment is not what keeps the faithful coming back.

The Cauliflower is published by William Heinemann (£16.99). Click here to buy it for £12.99


Stephanie Cross

The GuardianTramp

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