Nicola Barker wins Goldsmiths prize for her novel H(a)ppy

Barker beats novels by Will Self and Jon McGregor to take home the £10,000 literary prize for her narrative-bending vision of a dystopian future

Nicola Barker’s H(a)ppy has won this year’s Goldsmiths prize for “fiction at its most novel”, praised by judges as a work of “vaulting ambition”.

H(a)ppy is set in the far future, in an apparently perfect world free of poverty and suffering, with certain words printed in colour alongside spaces, diagrams and a profusion of symbols. Barker’s heroine, Mira A, tells us: “When darkness threatens (darkness? Can there ever truly be darkness again?) they simply adjust the chemicals.” She ponders why, writing of how “h(a)ppy” this makes her, “the A persist[s] on disambiguating? On parenthesising? … How curious … How perplexing. A malfunction? A blip? A king? But where …?”

The chair of judges and lecturer in creative writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, Naomi Wood, called the novel “a structural marvel to hold in the mind and in the hands”.

Describing the story as “an ingenious closed loop of mass surveillance, technology and personality-modifying psychopharmaceuticals,” Wood added: “H(a)ppy is a fabulous demonstration of what the Goldsmiths prize champions: innovation of form that only ever enriches the story. In Barker’s 3D-sculpture of a novel, H(a)ppy makes the case for the novel as a physical form and an object of art.”

The cover of H(a)ppy by Nicola Barker, which has just won the Goldsmiths prize

Barker’s novel was chosen for the £10,000 prize over titles including Will Self’s Phone, Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 and Sara Baume’s A Line Made By Walking.

The Goldsmiths prize rewards British and Irish fiction “that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel” and was launched in 2013 with the New Statesman. Barker is the first English novelist to win the prize, with the first award taken by Irish writer Eimear McBride for A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, the second by Scottish author Ali Smith, and the third and fourth by the Irish writers Kevin Barry and Mike McCormack.

Barry said that Barker’s novel was “a work of vaulting ambition … deathly serious but played out with the lightest of touches”.

“She takes the vapid discourse of social media blather, with all its ‘likes’ and ‘favourites’, and extrapolates madly to make a language for an utterly believable future world, a world enslaved by the blandness of its technology,” said Barry. “Line by line, the novel carefully builds its music and teases out its crazed riffs. It’s very funny, but there are pockets of great eeriness, and of savagery even. It’s a novel-as-object, too, with a typography employed as visual code, but its design always has a narrative purpose. Only a writer of uncanny ability could bring this novel to such memorable, pulsing life. It’s very moving.”

Barker, whose novels also include Darkmans and The Yips, has been shortlisted for the Booker, and has won the Impac prize (now the International Dublin Literary award).

Speaking to the Guardian earlier this year, she explained how in Mira A’s world narrative is taboo, which means “the story itself is the destructive element. The thing you’re reading is the thing that’s not permitted. So the words themselves are a breach of something, the telling of the story is what’s wrong, and the urge to tell it is what continues.”

She questioned where this meant she could go next, in her writing. “I’m not destroying narrative for everyone, I’m destroying it for myself,” she said. “Which is disastrous for me, because I understand the world through narrative. When you destroy the thing that explains everything to you, then what is that process? What have I done? So the last year has been trying to understand why I did that, what it means for me. But also what it means in terms of the novel, because I’ve sort of deconstructed the novel to such an extent – what is left of it?”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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