Barker, Nicola 1966-
BARKER, Nicola 1966-
(Nicola Jane Barker)
PERSONAL: Born March 30, 1966, in Ely, Cambridgeshire, England; daughter of Derek Royston (a sales executive) and Rayne (a teacher; maiden name, Van Lingen) Barker. Education: King's College, Cambridge, B.A. (with honors), 1988. Politics: "Situationist." Hobbies and other interests: Popular music, dogs.
ADDRESSES: Home—London, England. Agent—David Miller, Rogers, Coleridge & White, 20 Powls Mews, London W11 1JN, England.
CAREER: Writer. Queen Elizabeth's Children's Hospital, London, England, diet cook, 1992–93. Has also worked at a bakery and as a cashier, waitress, and factory worker.
AWARDS, HONORS: David Higham Prize for best first novel or book of short stories, 1993, for Love Your Enemies; joint winner of PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award for fiction, 1994, for Love Your Enemies; Arts Council Literature Bursary, 1995; Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for work by a Commonwealth writer under the age of thirty-five, 1996, for "Heading Inland"; International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2000, for Wide Open; named one of the Granta Best of Young British Novelists, 2003.
Love Your Enemies (short stories), Faber & Faber (London, England), 1993.
Reversed Forecast (novel), Faber & Faber (London, England), 1994.
Small Holdings (novel), Faber & Faber (London, England), 1995.
(With others) Does the Sun Rise over Dagenham?: And Other Writing from London, foreword by Mark Lawson, Fourth Estate (London, England), 1998.
Wide Open (novel), Faber (London, England), 1998.
The Three Button Trick and Other Stories, Ecco (Hopewell, NJ), 1999.
Five Miles from Outer Hope (novel), Faber & Faber (London, England), 2000.
Behindlings (novel), Flamingo (London, England), 2002.
Clear: A Transparent Novel, Fourth Estate (London, England), 2004, Ecco (New York, NY), 2005.
Also author of Heading Inland.
SIDELIGHTS: British author Nicola Barker's award-winning fiction is known for its quirky characters and strange premises. Her debut book, a collection of stories titled Love Your Enemies, was described as "surreal, fresh, funny and very British in its oddball humor" by a Publishers Weekly reviewer. It earned her the David Higham Prize and led her to becoming the joint recipient of a Macmillan Silver Pen Award for fiction. In 1997, her work Heading Inland was recognized with the John Llewellyn Rhys/Mail on Sunday Prize for work by a Commonwealth writer under the age of thirty-five. Greater honors were bestowed upon Barker for Wide Open, her 1998 novel. Wide Open beat out works by widely known and highly praised authors—including Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning authors such as Toni Morrison and Michael Cunningham—to win the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, a prize that was accompanied by one of the largest monetary awards for a single work of fiction.
Wide Open is an unconventional novel driven by strange characters and an obscure narrative framework. The distinct characters—a homeless man, an optician, an ex-pornographic photographer, a boar farmer, a physically deformed young woman, the son of a pedophile, and a man who sprays weeds for a living—have a couple of common characteristics. As a Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote, they each have a "baffled inability to communicate with the world and … increasingly violent hopes of escape—from their odd dreams, from each other, and from life." Calling the characters fascinating, the critic judged Wide Open to be "an oddly (even unpleasantly) affecting" book.
The year after Wide Open was released, Barker's The Three Button Trick and Other Stories was published. The volume contains nineteen stories that were included in previous collections. As with Wide Open, Barker's tales in The Three Button Trick and Other Stories are peopled by strange characters and explore extreme behaviors and feelings of alienation. Judith Ann Akalaitis, writing in Library Journal, called it "a stunning assortment of stories—original, witty, and peculiar," and noted that "Barker's wit and creativity are definitely out of the ordinary." A Publishers Weekly reviewer found the collection "wildly imaginative and thoroughly entertaining," and noted that Barker "never fails to surprise and delight with incisive writing and piercing wit, to say nothing of all the vivid characters inhabiting these rambunctious and witty stories."
Barker's Five Miles from Outer Hope once again demonstrates her fondness for strange characters. The story is narrated by Medve, an extremely tall sixteen-year-old girl from a family of very short people. Medve is knock-kneed, clumsy, with rotten teeth, and a host of other peculiarities. And yet she is also a typical teenager, according to Alex Clark in Guardian, because she is "egotistical, insecure, over-confident, under-confident, shy, brash, whiny, demanding." Clark praised Barker for her ability to take "the staples of adolescent drama (appearance anxiety, thwarted intellectual development, family squabbles and raging hormones) and transform them, by a process of wildly excessive invention, into something quite unrecognisable." Barker, stated Clark, is possessed of a "determinedly perverse and ungovernable imagination," and is "wonderfully able to sustain [weirdness] over the length of a novel."
In Barker's more recent novels Behindlings and Clear: A Transparent Novel reviewers have sometimes observed that although the stories are populated with Barker's trademark strange characters, there does not seem to be a lot going on in her stories. Behindlings is about a band of groupies who have followed the charismatic and oddball author Wesley to Canvey Island, where they hope to gain information to solve the Loiter, a contest in which participants find clues to solve a puzzle and win a prize. The groupies also want to learn more about Katherine Turpin, another strange character who lives on Canvey and about whom Wesley once wrote an exposé. Not only do the amoral and conniving Wesley and incest-victim Katherine possess various personality quirks, but the groupies do as well; they are all—pursuers and pursued—misfits. Beth E. Andersen guessed in her Library Journal review that Behindlings is meant to be "a cautionary tale for celebrity addicts" that turns out to be "a tiresome, confusing read." But while a Kirkus Reviews critic agreed that Barker's tale can be "exasperating," the conclusion was that this "damn-near perfect piece of work" ends with a "haunting climax."
Clear is another novel that has an unusual premise and offbeat characters. As with Behindlings, the people in Clear have become fascinated by a celebrity. In this case, it is the real-life professional illusionist David Blaine, whose latest stunt is to seal himself into a transparent box suspended near the Tower Bridge in London for forty-four days. The novel explores the possible motives for Blaine's stunt and examines the spectators' reaction to it. Not only is the story itself unusual, but the author's writing approach is unique as well. "Barker eschews plot," observed a Kirkus Reviews writer, "offering instead excited commentary, vitiated by deliberate redundancy, hectoring addresses to the reader, aggressive overpunctuation and lots of blank space on the page." Some critics acknowledged the writing skills apparent in Clear, while also commenting on its lack of approachability for readers. For example, Francis Henry King asserted in Spectator that "this is far from [a] flimsy novel" and Barker "is an undoubtedly innovative and talented" writer, but "the reader may eventually weary of her prevailing tone of aggressive disparagement." On the other hand, a Publishers Weekly contributor called Clear "offbeat and authentic, intellectual and accessible," adding that "Barker's is an original voice."
Barker once told CA: "I suppose I write because it saves me from talking about myself to other people. I'm not very sociable. I get more enjoyment from reading things—from imagining things—than from doing them. That, at least, is how I feel today, but I'm not a particularly consistent person. I only ever write for myself. I can never imagine anyone else being interested in the things I do. Everyone who writes must be extremely vain; for me to deny it would mean that I was even more vain.
"There are many writers whom I hold in high regard—most, if not all, are American. Among them are Philip K. Dick (his fiction, not his science fiction) and Salinger for Franny and Zooey. Jack Schaefer's Shane makes me cry if I even think about it. Ellen Gilchrist's short stories made me love this medium. My most adored piece of nonfiction writing is Flannery O'Connor's essay on peacocks. If I died and went to heaven, this would be narrated to me on an eternal spool.
"I love the small things in life best—anything visceral: the natural but revolting details. I want to celebrate femininity, but not to indulge it. I want to bruise masculinity, but not to batter it."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, January 1, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of Behindlings, p. 843.
Guardian (London, England), January 29, 2000, Alex Clark, review of Five Miles from Outer Hope, p. 10; June 10, 2000, John Cunningham, "Nicola Barker Tells John Cunningham about Striving for Perfect Weirdness," p. 11.
Independent (London, England), February 5, 2000, Liz Jensen, review of Five Miles from Outer Hope, p. 10.
Independent Sunday (London, England), February 6, 2000, Maggie O'Farrell, "Her Novels Are Ineffably Weird and Unaccountably Beguiling, Rather Like Their Author," p. 10.
Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 1998, review of Wide Open; October 1, 2002, review of Behindlings, p. 1411; April 15, 2005, review of Clear: A Transparent Novel, p. 433.
Library Journal, July, 1999, Judith Ann Akalaitis, review of The Three Button Trick and Other Stories, p. 138; November 15, 2002, Beth E. Andersen, review of Behindlings, p. 99.
New Statesman, August 30, 1996, Mary Scott, "Adventures in Capitalism," p. 48.
New York Times Book Review, December 29, 2002, review of Behindlings, p. 7; December 28, 2003, Scott Veale, review of Clear, p. 16.
Publishers Weekly, July 5, 1993, review of Love Your Enemies, p. 63; July 13, 1998, review of Wide Open, p. 59; May 31, 1999, review of The Three Button Trick and Other Stories, p. 63; November 18, 2002, review of Behindlings, p. 41; May 9, 2005, review of Clear, p. 45.
Spectator, September 18, 2004, Francis Henry King, "Goggling at the Box," review of Clear, p. 48.
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), February 6, 2000, David Robson, review of Five Miles from Outer Hope.
Savoy Magazine, http://www.savoymag.com/ (August 20, 2001), Charlie Dickinson, review of Wide Open.