Nicola Barker wins Goldsmiths Prize with H(a)ppy

Prize dominated by Irish writers goes to English author for first time

H(a)ppy, a novel by Nicola Barker presented like an illuminated manuscript for the digital age, has won the Goldsmiths Prize 2017.

She is the first English winner of the £10,000 prize, which rewards fiction at its most novel and has been won by three Irish authors (Eimear McBride, Kevin Barry and Mike McCormack) and one Scot (Ali Smith) since it was founded in 2013.

This year, Irish author Sara Baume made the shortlist with A Line Made by Walking, along with Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor; First Love by Gwendoline Riley; Phone by Will Self, published by Viking; and Playing Possum by Kevin Davey.

Barker won the Impac Dublin Literary Award in 2000 for Wide Open and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Darkmans in 2007 and longlisted for Clear: A Transparent Novel (2004) and The Yips (2012). She was born in Ely, Cambridgeshire, in 1966 and spent part of her childhood in South Africa. She lives and works in east London.


In H(a)ppy, her 11th novel, Barker breaks up lines with coloured words, injects spaces and diagrams, and finally carves symbols into the type as if the fabric of the text itself is breaking down.

The experimental presentation mirrors a tale of a future perfect world in which poverty, hatred and suffering appear to have been eliminated. As this perfection unravels, language and its infinite possibilities take centre stage as fragments mysteriously appear, repeat and riff off each other in poetic, often musical, prose.

Naomi Wood chaired a panel of judges makde up of writers Kevin Barry and AL Kennedy and writer, singer and songwriter Tracey Thorn.

Wood, lecturer in creative writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, said: “Nicola Barker’s H(a)ppy is a structural marvel to hold in the mind and in the hands. Line by line, colour by colour, this dystopic utopia is an ingenious closed loop of mass surveillance, technology and personality-modifying psychopharmaceuticals. H(a)ppy is a fabulous demonstration of what the Goldsmiths Prize champions: innovation of form that only ever enriches the story. In Barker’s 3D-sculpture of a novel, H(a)ppy makes the case for the novel as a physical form and an object of art.”

Barry said: “Nicola Barker’s H(a)ppy is a work of vaulting ambition. It is deathly serious but played out with the lightest of touches. She takes the vapid discourse of social media blather, with all its ‘likes’ and ‘favourites’, and extrapolates madly to make a language for an utterly believable future world, a world enslaved by the blandness of its technology. Line by line, the novel carefully builds its music and teases out its crazed riffs. It’s very funny but there are pockets of great eeriness, and of savagery even. It’s a novel-as-object, too, with a typography employed as visual code, but its design always has a narrative purpose. Only a writer of uncanny ability could bring this novel to such memorable, pulsing life. It’s very moving.”