H(a)ppy by Nicola Barker review – life in a world without stories

Nicola Barker’s kaleidoscopic new novel is a socio-political futurama with a wildness and honesty all of its own

What wonders there are in Nicola Barker’s bewildering, fatiguing and deliciously stimulating new novel, and what colours would those adjectives appear in had they been processed by The Graph, the all-seeing, nearly all-controlling system that monitors citizens’ emotions and accordingly represents them in pinks, reds, blues and purples? The more dramatic the emotion, the stronger the colour – but rather than indicating a welcome concentration of excitement or pleasure, such variations are to be repudiated: in Barker’s brave new world – whether a dystopia or a utopia is a moot point – stability, calm and neutrality are prized above all else.

This is the post-history, post-pain, post-individual world of The Young, who have traded what the uninitiated might view as their liberty for membership of a moderated, soothed and protected group consciousness. ...

When breaks go bad: why a holiday is the perfect setting for a fictional emotional crisis

The anxious mother, the doomed cruise, the angry swarm of jellyfish … all rich pickings for novelists and short story writers

Often, even now, with twenty-four days of the cruise behind her and only twenty more to be lived through, the fears she had experienced the first evening would recur: She was at sea, alone. There was no one around to tip stewards, order drinks, plan the nights, make love to her, pay the bills, tell her where she was and what it was all about. How had this happened?”

Even on terra firma, on a far shorter trip, or in the midst of a crowd of jolly steward-tippers, we’ve probably all experienced some of the feelings that strike Mrs Ellenger, one of the two central characters in Mavis Gallant’s 1954 story “Going Ashore”. Having a far worse time is the other, Mrs Ellenger’s daughter, Emma, who must cope with ...

Nicola Barker: ‘I find books about middle-class people so boring – I feel like stabbing myself’

The Booker-shortlisted novelist on religion, Love Island and her ‘catastrophic urge’ to destroy narrative As Nicola Barker admits, her new novel, H(a)ppy, “really does mess with you in the end”. About halfway through, she reckons, is where “it gets nuts”, but to be truthful, the signs are there from pretty early on. Here’s a quick precis, with no spoilers. Set in a future saved from floods, fires, plagues and death cults by “the Altruistic Powers”, it’s the story of Mira A, a member of the Young – a generation freed from uncertainty, desire and emotional unevenness by constant regulation of the Information Stream and minute adjustments to preserve the balance of the Graph. But that’s only the half of it: on the page, type breaks up, symbols and pictures form themselves in the gaps, fonts jostle, and change case and colour to indicate a shift in the intensity of ...

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy review – a patchwork of narratives

Roy’s first novel in 20 years is a sprawling but memorable tale involving a vast castThe drama of the unforthcoming second novel is often a great deal more intense and traumatic to literary onlookers than it is to their putative creators. Marilynne Robinson, for example, whose output as a novelist paused for nearly 25 years after her brilliant debut Housekeeping, published in 1980; when it recommenced, with Gilead, it did so in Pulitzer prize-winning fashion, and two subsequent novels. But this was not writer’s block, it was a writer making choices; the academic work and essays that Robinson undertakes as well as her fiction writing are just as much a part of her creative and intellectual identity. Even when there seems to be a more straightforward matter of a writer moving slowly – as in, for example, Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers, which took ...

Baileys prize winner Naomi Alderman on fame, Trump and Wonder Woman

Her bold tale The Power, set in a world where women can electrocute men at will, has won the prestigious prize. Alderman talks about the book’s impact, crying at Wonder Woman and why female solidarity is more vital than running water Naomi Alderman writes novels and video games, teaches, makes radio programmes about science, art, fantasy and culture for the BBC. “I don’t watch a lot of Ready Steady Cook,” she deadpans. This morning, she has been editing the second half of the latest season of Zombies, Run!, her bestselling mobile fitness and adventure game, on the train. Now, she has been whisked off to a supposedly quiet room in London’s Royal Festival Hall to talk to me about The Power, the novel that has just won the Baileys prize for women’s fiction, worth £30,000 and a considerable boost to sales. Continue reading...

Phone by Will Self review – a hotline to humour and humanity

Dementia, the Iraq war and the effects of modern communications on human consciousness collide in the last of a disorienting trilogy
Will Self’s 17th work of fiction is the conclusion of a trilogy that encompasses his last two novels, Umbrella and Shark; but it also returns to themes and characters that have recurred throughout his oeuvre. Most notable is the psychiatrist (or “anti-psychiatrist”, as he has come to be known) Zack Busner, who appeared in the short stories of Self’s debut, The Quantity Theory of Insanity. Said theory has it that there is but a finite amount of sanity to go around. The title story’s setting, an unorthodox treatment centre in Willesden Green, north-west London called “Concept House”, crops up again in Shark, in which Busner attempts to pioneer a radical treatment for encephalitis. But if all this patterning makes Self’s work – and particularly this trilogy – sound like an exercise in narrative neatness, ...

Hanif Kureishi: ‘Britain’s middle class is more racist now than ever’

The My Beautiful Laundrette writer on Brexit Britain, collaborating with his sons and seeing his seventh novel as a B movie The afternoon I meet Hanif Kureishi seems fittingly ominous, with dark skies and swirling wind a reflection of the political weather. Over in Westminster, Theresa May is busy triggering Article 50, and fulfilling the will of the British people (little did we know, of course, what further turbulence was to come, with the election called this week). Meanwhile, Kureishi and I set up shop in a jolly brasserie in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, with polished wood and a chequerboard floor; he sips a glass of red, I chug an espresso and, despite the day, there is something cheerfully European about the whole scene. There’s also something about Kureishi that chimes with the mood of the times: laconic and deadpan in manner, he alternates between intense seriousness and comical flippancy; there’s a ...