This review was published in October 2016 in the Cuckoo Review here.
In the afterword to The Cauliflower®, Nicola Barker’s latest work, she says the following: “This novel (if I can call it that) is truly little more than the sum of its many parts. It’s a painstakingly constructed, slightly mischievous and occasionally provocative / chaotic mosaic of many other people’s thoughts, memories and experiences.” This final word from the author almost makes peace with us as a reader, which is necessary, given that we, as readers, are immediately unsettled from the off. Once we are able to give up the natural desire to feel that we understand, that we get the point of Barker’s novel, it is much easier to appreciate it as a bold work of a genre-genius. I only wish the afterword had been a foreword instead.
Imagine you shove in your pocket all your prettiest bits of jewellery, a collection of items from different places which you’ve amassed over the years. Some are weird, some are wonderful, but they all tell a story and they all have their own charm. Now what happens when you pull them out of your pocket a few hours later, and they’re a big tangled clump of metal that you have to painstakingly unravel? What at first seems like a jumbled mess is in fact still the same strings of careful and beautiful craft from various different sources. The Cauliflower® is the literary equivalent of this, and the jewellery collection is Sri Ramakrishna’s.
The novel tells the story of Sri Ramakrishna, a 19th century Indian guru, and his devoted nephew-cum-carer, Hriday. It is told through a mixture of prose, haikus, letters, scripts, references, quotations, and questions – all of which are constantly interjected by a self-aware narrator who comments, ridicules, jokes and disenchants us with the bits of texts they’ve just laid out before us. Each ‘entry’ (calling the parts of The Cauliflower® ‘chapters’ would not do their diverse informality justice) also has an italicised heading, which ranges from a straightforward date (and even these jump back and forth all over the place) to stage directions, mood directions, or instructions on how to read the next piece.
Within a few pages, we move from “Ten slightly irrelevant answers to nine slightly irrelevant questions you didn’t even know you’d asked about the Divine Mother, Sri Sarada Devi” to“1862, approximately” via “Eight haiku” and “An enquiry into the essential nature of farina pudding”. Without physically noting on a timeline by your side, it would be almost impossible to naturally keep up with where we are chronologically in the narrative.
Yet, somehow, this didn’t really matter. By the time you are twenty pages in, and have already been exposed to quotations from the Song of Solomon, Dickens’ Bleak House, jumped back and forth between various years in a hundred-year span, been in Calcutta/Kolkata/Kalikata, as well as 1950’s America — you appreciate that to enjoy the book a certain level of understanding has to be dropped, and it will result in a much more gratifying read. Whatever format Barker’s words are in, there is a ferocious energy behind them – I found this sometimes even added to my own confusion, as a hunger to turn the pages lead me to rush my reading.
Her imagination knows no bounds, nor do her ideas on how to convey it. Is Sri Ramakrishna a manipulating, selfish old fool who caused his doting nephew unnecessary misery with his bizarre attempts to reach enlightenment, which ranged from crazed days of isolation to living as a monkey? Or was he a truly spiritual, caring being who provided hope and comfort for many? I’d say it doesn’t really matter. Barker opens up our eyes to appreciate literature as a sum of its whole, rather than a linear work with fixed answers and meanings. It is, at times, utterly baffling – readers may become frustrated or even bored by the lack of continuity to begin with. But once overcome, and a new strategy of reading decided upon, it is well worth reading. Most importantly it is brave and different, and there aren’t many authors out there who are able to achieve this difference skilfully. The Cauliflower ® is a rich history of India, a reflection on family, faith and love, and an appreciation of the power of words all at the same time. It is a glorious, glutinous mess of a story. Or maybe it’s just completely mad. Who knows.