The Cauliflower® by Nicola Barker

Nicola Barker’s new novel is a perplexing assemblage of narrative fragments, poetry, scripture, and historical documents, ‘collaged’, to use her own definition, to produce an exploration of faith and myth-making. The Cauliflower® tells a reconstructed, irreverent and comedic history of the Hindu guru and saint, Sri Ramakrishna, and his place in an imagined twentieth-century Calcutta.

What is always striking about Barker’s fiction is her unfalteringly joyful pursuit of her subject matter, where her own interests and, in the case of this latest work, childhood imagination and curiosity, are not sublimated by dispassionate storytelling in the third person. Instead this novel is an enthusiastic weaving of narrative threads and voices, punctuated by personal interventions addressed to the audience of the film-in-progress which gives the book its title. Barker’s work can make for tricky reading because of this characteristic plethora of genres and narrative frames, all of which are compiled in self-aware ways and often linked by suggestion and free-association. The story is carried by the reader who is pushed to collaborate on this ‘collage’. The reward for this work is a novel which rambles happily across the history and politics of faith in Calcutta and the parts of Europe which have attempted to colonise it.

Barker’s references to contemporary colonialism directed at Eastern spiritual practices are oblique but sharp, and the mischievous narrative voices of Ramakrishna and his nephew Hriday continue to subvert the ecstasy of a narrative climax which the English novel moves towards. The avoidance of a linear narrative and resolution is perfectly done, and, despite my misgivings, doesn’t make for disappointment so much as admiration. Barker continues to make a career of singularly risky and difficult fiction and The Cauliflower® performs what we hope for in all ‘hard’ books – some gratifying extensions of our thinking about reading and the role stories have in our lives. I cannot admit to ever being interested in fiction about religion, but this novel crept up on me and I enjoyed it much more than a blurb could have suggested.

Georgia Delaney