Susan Barker at Manchester Literature Festival

In 2014, Doubleday published Susan Barker’s third novel The Incarnations. Set in contemporary Beijing but spanning 1000 years of Chinese history, it’s an inventive, intelligent, engrossing novel. It went on to win a Jerwood Fiction Prize in 2015 and to garner rave reviews in the broadsheets both in the UK and the USA.


On the second day of Manchester Literature Festival 2016, I’m in the International Anthony Burgess Centre to see a sold out talk by Barker about her writing of the novel. She begins by telling us that it’s about the six lives of the taxi driver Wang Jun, one in Beijing in 2008, where he’s a taxi driver and five across the Tang Dynasty, the invasion of Genghis Khan, the Ming Dynasty, the Opium War and the Cultural Revolution.

Barker says she had two strategies when researching the novel. The first was for the historical sections which were largely text based, although she did visit sites of historical interest too. The second, for the contemporary sections, in which she wanted to show the rapid societal and economic changes that had taken place in Beijing, she took an artists’ residency in the city in 2007 and ended up staying for five years.

While she lived in the city, the idea of the narrator’s occupation came from a conversation Barker had with some taxi drivers on a cigarette break in December 2007. She talked to them, practising her ‘bad Chinese’ and decided that a taxi driver would give the reader ‘a panoramic view of the city’ and allow Beijing to have a central presence in the novel.

She lived in a flat that had previously belonged to the Ministry of Agriculture and housed some of its workers. This is the flat in which Wang lives during the novel. As Barker moved to Beijing as the city was gearing up for the Olympics, the atmosphere at the time ‘swept its way into the book’. This atmosphere took several forms: renovation, celebration and surveillance. She tells us of building supervisors carrying out checks on people’s papers and of the government cleaning the streets of the homeless and the mentally ill whom they detained for the duration of the Olympics.

Barker began by reading books that gave broad overviews of Chinese history and then carried out further research into those most interesting to her. She wasn’t sure how she was going to structure the novel until she came up with the idea of reincarnation and the epistolian nature of the book. This meant that the structure would link past to present; Barker also liked the idea of human nature repeating/history reoccurring and this became one of the central themes.


We’re then treated to a bit of a history lesson as Barker takes us through the settings of the five letters in the novel. The first is set in the Tang Dynasty which, she says, was comparatively open and cosmopolitan compared to some of periods of Chinese rule. This period produced some of Barker’s favourite cultural highlights. The story written with this period as the backdrop is during the rule of Tang Taizong, the 2nd Emperor of the dynasty. He was entertained by courtesans who would sing, dance, recite poetry and be witty conversationalists. Only eunuchs were permitted to serve the emperor to ensure purity of the imperial lineage. Barker was interested in the psychological effects of castration: some men found it purifying, others distressing, so she explored this in the story set in this period.

The second is the Jin Dynasty, 1215, during the invasion of Genghis Khan into north China. The Siege of Zhangdu was his most ambitious. 70,000 horseback warriors surrounded the city until one million inhabitants began to starve and turned to cannibalism. When the city fell, the Mongols went through systematically and raised it to the ground. The only people who survived were people with skills. The story told in The Incarnations is about two people who lie that they have skills but, Barker tells us that Genghis Khan is ‘very much the beating heart of the story’. She was interested in what it was like to be a powerless individual swept up by this historical force.

Emperor Jiajing, the most sadistic of the Ming Dynasty – ‘Which is quite impressive!’ –  is the ruler during the time in which the third story takes place. Jiajing was mostly interested in his own mortality. He had a harem of 200 concubines and it was rumoured he’d tortured and murdered some of them. In October 1542, sixteen concubines plotted to kill him. ‘In a sense they were the most powerful women in China’, Barker says, but they were also prisoners who took their fate into their own hands. The story follows the women as they carry out their plot.

The fourth story takes place in Canton, the city now known as Guangzhou, during the Opium Wars. Barker includes the Tankas, a group who live on junks and have their own subculture and the British. She explores the psychological climate: the Chinese and British attitudes to each other. There were deeply ingrained racial prejudices that were very difficult to overcome, she says.

The Anti-Capitalist School for Revolutionary Girls in the People’s Republic of China is the setting for the fifth story. Barker was interested in class at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution and the way in which it began with education with schools being given the freedom to persecute teachers. She read Colin Febron’s Behind the Wall which was written in the 1980s not long after the Cultural Revolution ended. In it he describes the revolution as ‘The collective madness as of an entire nation’. Barker thinks this assessment is harsh but she is interested in how loyalty to Mao Zedong overrode rationality. She’s interested in what it was like to live in a totalitarian society so the story takes place from the interior view of someone who’s being brainwashed.

The themes of the novel are power and power struggles. This is both between individuals in their relationships and between the state – the minority who rule – and the people – the majority who are subjugated. Barker’s interested in how these reoccurs generation after generation. States of peace and stability are always precarious, she says. The contemporary section of the book is set during the most stable time but Wang Jun is disengaged and passive. He’s not interested in wealth and gaining status through it. Instead he’s seduced by the letters left in his taxi and the idea of someone loving him so passionately. The relationship between the taxi driver and the anonymous letter writer is ‘the final power struggle of the book’.

British Writing is not all Grey: Fiction Uncovered


Yesterday, you might have seen the hashtag #BritishwritingisnotallGrey on Twitter. Sophie Rochester, Director of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, wrote on their blog about how as the winners of the prize were announced the news was dominated by EL James’ latest Fifty Shades novel. The piece isn’t about criticising James, it’s a positive call to arms for people to tweet about their favourite contemporary British writer or a great work of contemporary British fiction using the hashtag #BritishwritingisnotallGrey.

Unfortunately I’m incapable of stopping at one – there are far too many I think you should be reading. I tweeted five tweets worth and then thought I’d better stop before people got annoyed at me spamming their feeds. However, within ten minutes I’d thought of enough writers I’d missed in the tweets to create another five tweets worth, so I’m blogging about them all instead.

Obviously this list is highly subjective and women only (which, for once, I am a little sad about as there are loads of very good under the radar British male writers too – have a look at the hashtag). I’m only listing writers I’ve actually read, so feel free to tweet/add in the comments any you love whom I’ve not included (particularly writers of colour, where I am aware I’m lacking). Links are to the latest review I’ve written for that writer.

In no particular order:

Sarah Hall
Kerry Hudson
Nicola Barker
Kirsty Logan
Selena Godden
Helen Oyeyemi
Bernadine Evaristo
Jackie Kay
Antonia Honeywell
Catherine Hall
Claire Fuller
Grace McCleen
Emma Jane Unsworth
Susan Barker
Sarah Waters
Maggie O’Farrell
Anneliese Mackintosh
Ali Smith
Rosie Garland
Lucy Ribchester
Alice Furse
Emily Mackie
Alison Moore
Stella Duffy
Hilary Mantel
Caitlin Moran
Sarah Perry
Michèle Roberts
Jill Dawson
Deborah Levy
Zadie Smith
Nina Stibbe
Helen Walsh
Harriet Lane
Jojo Moyes
Helen Macdonald
Rachel Joyce
Lissa Evans
Naomi Wood
Eva Dolan
Carys Bray
Jess Richards
Linda Grant
Rebecca Mascull
Emma Healey
Anna Hope
Rebecca Hunt
Deborah Kay Davis
Charlotte Mendelson
MJ Hyland
MJ Carter
Sara Sheridan
Tiffany Murray
Kate Clanchy
Helen Dunmore
Sarah Dunant
Tessa Hadley
Louise Doughty
Evie Wyld
Olivia Laing
Araminta Hall
Kate Atkinson
AL Kennedy
Joanne Harris
Holly Smale
Paula Lichtarowicz
Ros Barber
Lisa O’Donnell
Freya North
Sarah Butler
Nell Leyshon
Nikita Lalwani
Sally Gardner
Janice Galloway
Salley Vickers
Jeanette Winterson
Carol Ann Duffy
Lucy Wood
Sadie Jones
Samantha Harvey
Zoe Heller
Susanna Clarke
Shelley Harris
Helen Simpson
Rachel Seiffert
Andrea Levy
Roopa Farooki
Anne Donovan
Nina de la Mer
Jilly Cooper
Naomi Alderman

Over to you…

The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize Winners

Yesterday evening was the prize ceremony for the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. The event took place in the Jerwood Space in South London and I was lucky enough to be there.

Photograph by Nina Pottell

Photograph by Nina Pottell

The longlist of fifteen titles was whittled down to eight winners, all of whom were presented with a beautiful hand-bound edition of their book and a cheque for £5000. The prize is unique in that it awards the best British fiction from across the country and has eight winners who equally share the prize money. It was clear from the speeches of the winners, particularly Carys Davies, Grace McCleen and Bethan Roberts how much this means to writers in a time when grants have been cut and more books than ever are being published. It’s also fantastic to see a number of independent publishers being recognised and to have a winners list where three quarters of the recipients are women. (Now for more writers of colour to be recognised, although I understand there’s an issue here in terms of the number of books submitted by writers of colour.)

Photography by Rachael Beale

Photography by Rachael Beale

The winning books are:

A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)

Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth (Canongate Books)

Mobile Library by David Whitehouse (Picador, Pan Macmillan)

Mother Island by Bethan Roberts (Chatto & Windus, Penguin Random House)

Significance by Jo Mazelis (Seren Books)

The Incarnations by Susan Barker (Doubleday, Transworld)

The Offering by Grace McCleen (Sceptre, Hodder & Stoughton)

The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies (Salt)

The three I’ve read are all great (click the link to read my reviews) – Animals and The Incarnations both made my best of the year list last year. I’m really looking forward to exploring the rest of the list.

Photograph by Nina Pottell

Photograph by Nina Pottell

It’s also Fiction Uncovered’s fifth birthday and to celebrate they had an art installation cake. Yes, that’s really a cake! Isn’t it amazing? It tasted delicious too.

There’s also more celebrations to come. Jerwood Fiction Uncovered FM will return to the airwaves on Sunday 21 June. The annual radio station dedicated to discussing great British fiction will be on Resonance FM at 104.4fm and via Guests will also include the winning authors, the 2015 judging panel and other British fiction writers including Catherine Hall, Nikesh Shukla, Matt Thorne, Alex Wheatle, broadcaster Nikki Bedi and Danuta Kean. AND ME! Yes, really. I’m on a panel hosted by Nikki Bedi with Danuta Kean and Nikesh Shukla discussing diversity in the publishing industry following the pieces I wrote for the Fiction Uncovered blog in May. Jerwood Fiction Uncovered FM is on air 12-5pm, presented by Matt Thorne and Simon Savidge. The panel I’m involved in takes place from 13.40 to 14.10. Tune in!

Fiction Uncovered Guest Editor, Final Piece

Just to let you know that the final of my four pieces for Fiction Uncovered is live on their website. It’s called You Are What You Read and looks at the choices we make when we pick a book to read and why we might need to think more carefully.

Also, a huge thank you to everyone who’s left messages on here or on Twitter regarding my personal situation. It means an awful lot to me that not just friends and family are taking care of me but that people I’ve never even met have taken the time to message. Thank you.


The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Longlist

I’ve loved the Fiction Uncovered prize since discovering it three years ago. It awards eight writers who haven’t garnered the recognition they deserve and the choices are always wonderful. This year, for the first time, a longlist has been announced and it looks amazing. There are fifteen books, eleven of which – ELEVEN – are by women writers. I’m impressed. I’ve only read four of them but they’re all fantastic; if you click on the titles you can read my reviews. I’m going to endeavour to read the rest now. The shortlist is announced on the 18th June.

A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)

Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth (Canongate Books)

Beastings – Benjamin Myers (Bluemoose Books)

Dear Thief – Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape, Penguin Random House)

Mobile Library – David Whitehouse (Picador, Pan Macmillan)

Mother Island – Bethan Roberts (Chatto & Windus, Penguin Random House)

Significance – Jo Mazelis (Seren Books)

The Four Marys – Jean Rafferty (Saraband)

The Incarnations – Susan Barker (Doubleday, Transworld)

The Offering – Grace McCleen (Sceptre, Hodder & Stougton)

The Redemption of Galen Pike – Carys Davies (Salt)

The Spice Box Letters – Eve Makis (Sandstone Press)

The Stray American – Wendy Brandmark (Holland Park Press)

The Way Out – Vicki Jarrett (Freight Books)

Wittgenstein Jr – Lars Iyer (Melville House UK)

This diverse group of books has been chosen by the judges as they display the flair, range and literary rigour abounding in British writing today and should, the judges believe, be widely read. In a nation reeling from the most divisive general election for many years, this is a group of books that can unify readers in the power of a good story.

Announcing the longlist, chair of judges India Knight said:

“It is absolutely thrilling to have found such brilliant books, across such a wide variety of genres, and from authors that live and write all over the country. These are fantastic writers who deserve to be household names.”

On the decision to release the longlist for the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize for the first time this year, prize Founder and Director Sophie Rochester said:

“With writers from Swansea, Newcastle upon Tyne, Bath, Brighton, Lancaster, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Glasgow and London, and publishers from Yorkshire, Wales, Scotland and Norfolk, this year’s longlist presents an exciting snapshot of contemporary British fiction writing and publishing.”

Joining India Knight on the judging panel this year are Matt Bates (WH Smith Travel), Cathy Galvin (Word Factory/Newsweek) and Simon Savidge (Savidge Reads).

In the Media: 17th August 2014

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought-provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

I’m all about the list this week as I’ve read three excellent ones:

Elsewhere, the Guardian’s been busy with some great pieces/podcasts:

While the best piece I’ve read about books this week comes from the Observer – Rachel Cooke on the rise of bibliomemoirs, focusing particularly on Phyllis Rose who wrote The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading after choosing a shelf in The New York Society Library and reading everything on it.

Have you read/listened to anything interesting that’s not on my list? Let me know in the comments.

The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014


I love Fiction Uncovered, I think they do a brilliant job of highlighting British writers who, for whatever reason, don’t seem to have garnered the attention they deserve.

This year’s list, in my opinion, is their best yet. Eight titles, an equal gender split, and two of the best books I’ve read in the last nine months. The winners are:

Mr Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo
Little Egypt – Leslie Glaister
Mrs Hemingway – Naomi Woods
All the Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld
Lolito – Ben Brooks
The Dig – Cynan Jones
Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? – Gareth R. Roberts
Vanishing – Gerard Woodward

I’ve listed the women first (of course) and if you click on Mr Loverman and All the Birds, Singing you can read my reviews. I already have copies of Little Egypt and Mrs Hemingway and I’ll be reading and reviewing those over the summer.

Have you read any of these titles? What do you think of the list?

All the Beggars Riding – Lucy Caldwell

It’s – it’s not literature, I’m not a writer. It was just a story I had to tell. On every single page of it I was excruciatingly conscious of how much I wasn’t a writer…The people, the places – they’re not even a ghost, here, of the real thing. But maybe you’ll read it, and…well. You’ll understand, or at least understand a bit better.

Lara Moorhouse, almost 40, an agency carer, decides to tell her story. Or rather, the story of her family. It is a year since her mother died and several decades since her father was killed:

…a freak accident, a helicopter crash in bad weather. Then came the revelations, and the reporters, and soon after that we had to move out of our home and into the grotty, ramshackle rooms on the North End Road.

For, we learn, that Lara’s mother was ‘the other woman’ and her and her brother Alfie were the product of a long-standing affair. Lara’s father managed to maintain this façade for such a long period of time as Lara, her mother and brother lived in London, while his wife and other children lived in Belfast. Their father was a plastic surgeon who did reconstructive surgery on those affected by bomb blasts and shootings at the height of the Troubles. However, he also had a private practice on Harley Street, carrying out cosmetic procedures; Lara’s mum was one of the nurses.

The story itself is really interesting; how often is the mistress’ child allowed to give their perspective? How often is the story of that of an affair and two families maintained over more than a decade? I thought the angle from which Caldwell explored the story was fresh and prevented something which could’ve been a clichéd tale from becoming so.

What’s more interesting though is that All the Beggar’s Riding isn’t just a story about an affair, it’s a story about stories.

Lara decides to tell her tale when two things in her life coincide. As part of her job, she accompanies one of her patients, Mr Rawalpindi, to his writing class. The result of this is that she is already thinking about writing and stories when a documentary is shown on television. The documentary, we are told at the opening of the novel, is about the Chernobyl disaster. It focuses on the story of a young woman, Nastasya, whose husband was a worker at the plant. Affected by the radiation, her husband of three months and seventeen days was given a death sentence. Nastasya nursed her husband as he died after the doctors and nurses had refused. When asked by the interviewer why she did it, her answer is simple, ‘Because I love him, is why. Because is what love is’. Lara draws a parallel with her mother and her choice of lifestyle and decides that writing her mother’s story will help her to understand it.

It’s harder to tell a story, though, than you’d think. As I said earlier, lives aren’t orderly, and nor is memory: the mind doesn’t work like that. We make it so when we narrate things – setting them in straight lines and in context – whereas in reality things are all mixed up, and you feel several things, even things that contradict each other, or that happened at separate times, or that aren’t on the surface even related, all at once.

Caldwell uses Lara’s inexperience to allow the story to be told in a non-linear fashion, framed by Lara’s comments about her own life and ability as a writer. These comments draw attention to the fact that this is a story, shaped by Caldwell, but more interestingly, it also reminds us that those who live, or are part of, a double-life are also story tellers. Lara’s father has told her mother and his wife stories; Lara’s mother has told herself and her children another story, and now, Lara’s telling herself and – she hopes – her father’s other children, another story.

All the Beggar’s Rising is a multi-layered novel which showcases Caldwell’s talent. On finishing it, I sought out her previous novels; I’m already looking forward to seeing what she does next.

Thanks to Faber for the review copy.

All the Beggars Riding was one of 2013’s Fiction Uncovered titles. From the website:

Fiction Uncovered creates the opportunity for eight British fiction writers (novels, short stories, graphic novels) to be part of a major promotion supported by retailers, and a major publicity and marketing campaign.

Last year’s titles were:

All The Beggers Riding – Lucy Caldwell

How I Killed Margaret Thatcher – Anthony Cartwright

Black Bread White Beer – Niven Govinden

The Village – Nikita Lalwani

The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon

The Heart Broke In – James Meek

Orkney – Amy Sackville

Secrecy – Rupert Thomson

The Village – Nikita Lalwani

Ray, Serena and Nathan, director, producer and presenter from the BBC arrive at the Ashwer compound in India:

Around fifty dwellings faced each other in four huddled rows, separated by low fences roughly hewn from thick branches and stuffed with straw, leading to a tall iron water pump. Some homes were built of brick or stone, but many were not – their walls were made from the same corrugated sheet metal that formed the roof of other accommodation, long gaps visible at the joints.

Ashwer is an open prison. All its inmates are serving life for murder. ‘Crimes of passion, property and personal vengeance.’

…everyone is free to come and go as they please. In twenty years, not a single inmate has reoffended and only one person has attempted to escape.

Ray has won a commission from the BBC to film an episode for a series presenting “a ‘non-judgemental slice of life inside the prison system’ “. She arrives with the intention of making an ‘ethical and empathetic…documentary film’. Soon after her arrival, Ray meets Nandini, an inmate who works as a counselor for other prisoners. Nandini becomes Ray’s guide to Ashwar, a place that she might otherwise find difficult to infiltrate:

‘You think they need to be on ‘good behaviour’ for this place to work?’ said Ray.
‘It is not about this place working, it is about you being here.’

As the novel progresses, Ray and the team begin to discover more about the inmates – what specifically was their crime; how they feel about living in Ashwar – and their families (partners and children are expected to live with the prisoners as part of their rehabilitation). But then an email comes from London and Ray has to consider what’s more important: making good television or maintaining her ethical stance.

The Village pits the inhabitants of Ashwar against the BBC team: who has higher morals? Those who murder to protect themselves or those who manipulate in pursuit of a good story? Who behaves better? Those who have murdered and are now behaving in a manner allowing them to live in an open prison or those who drink, smoke dope and have casual sex?

It seems as though the answers to those questions would be obvious but Lalwani is cleverer than that, particularly with the way she uses the BBC team. There are tensions throughout between Ray and Serena, while Nathan, an ex-convict himself, makes the reader think more carefully about what an ex-offender could and should be entitled to once they’ve served their sentence.

The Village is a thought-provoking novel that is deceptively easy to read. I say deceptively as anything that seems so easy is very well crafted indeed.

Thanks to Penguin for the review copy.

The Village is one of this year’s Fiction Uncovered titles. From the website:

Fiction Uncovered creates the opportunity for eight British fiction writers (novels, short stories, graphic novels) to be part of a major promotion supported by retailers, and a major publicity and marketing campaign.

This year’s titles are:

All The Beggers Riding – Lucy Caldwell

How I Killed Margaret Thatcher – Anthony Cartwright

Black Bread White Beer – Niven Govinden

The Village – Nikita Lalwani

The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon

The Heart Broke In – James Meek

Orkney – Amy Sackville

Secrecy – Rupert Thomson