Starting on a novel by Pat Barker is like boarding a ship. Her urge to say what she has to say throbs like an engine through the narrative, which is peopled by instantly visible characters: bizarre, appealing, pathetic, sometimes menacing. She is unexperimental and unpretentious, a born storyteller, but serious: not just a raconteuse. In Britain she became a household name for what is now generally known as the Regeneration trilogy—three novels set during the First World War, the first of them published in 1991. They are called Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road. The Ghost Road won the Booker Prize for 1995.
The trilogy centered on the Craiglockhart War Hospital, a psychiatric clinic where officers suffering from what was known as shell shock were treated by “Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, FRS (1864-1922), the distinguished neurologist and social anthropologist.” The description comes from Barker’s Author’s Note to Regeneration, and her fascination with both of Rivers’s fields of research drives the novels. The poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were among Rivers’s patients, and the three of them mingle easily with Barker’s fictional characters. She reflects on death, memory, and history. Herself a historian, she seems particularly interested in how memory transforms itself over the years, transforming history in the process, changing our view of the past in the light of present tastes and concerns.
Her novels are grim and sad, even when she allows a small light to gleam at the end. She doesn’t shy away from the unbearable, whether physical or emotional. In fact, she is always exploring distressing experiences where the two overlap and the result is embarrassment and shame: the patients at Craiglockhart feel humiliated by their visible symptoms; and in Another World an old man recoils at the thought that a woman he admires might see him penned up like a baby in a hospital cot; while a young boy is cruelly teased by a girl who’s caught sight of shit marks in his underpants. Barker writes mainly in dialogue, and everything her characters say sounds just what they would say in a given situation: so, however harrowing that situation may be, there is always a thrill of pleasure to be got from the way she hits the target, and sometimes even amusement. She can be very funny in a crusty northern way.
Another World is set in Newcastle in the north of England. Barker was born in the north and lives there, and a side effect of her writing is the reminder that the north of England and the south are different countries. Northerners are supposed to be contemptuous of anything “fancy.” Perhaps that is why she appears so uninterested in literary fashion, and why her pace is brisk, her style pared down. Her writing is scrupulously cliché-free; but she is not above repeating effects, like streetlights glinting on raindrops and night moths; or recycling verbal inventions like “creaming” for what waves do when they hit the shore.
Her new novel is about family life. “All happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion,” Tolstoy wrote. Another World makes one realize that the famous opening sentence of Anna Karenina isn’t true—or not anymore. Barker’s family is unhappy in a typical—typically Nineties—way, and even the children know that. They are not at all naive. Nick, their father and stepfather, is a university lecturer in psychology. He lives with his second wife, Fran, their two-year-old son, Jasper, and Fran’s illegitimate first child, eleven-year-old Gareth. They have just moved into a huge, dilapidated Victorian mansion in a leafy suburb of Newcastle. It was built by an armaments manufacturer called Fanshawe. The story opens with Nick driving to the station to pick up his daughter by his first marriage. Miranda is thirteen and coming to stay for the summer because her mother has had a nervous breakdown and is in the hospital. When they get to the house, Nick points out to her the inscription carved on a lintel: 13 FANSHAWE 1898.
“Like Wuthering Heights,” Miranda says.
She is right. Fanshawe echoes Earnshawe, and there is a ghost. The teen-age son and daughter of the armaments manufacturer’s first marriage were tried and acquitted in 1905 for the murder of their baby half-brother. Nobody believed the verdict. The older boy was killed in the war; his sister grew old and died a recluse. Her adolescent ghost haunts the house and the road outside. Or not: Barker leaves open the question whether the figure of a girl seen fleetingly by Nick and the children is a ghost, or even there at all. The patients at Craiglockhart saw their dead comrades: they were ghosts to them, but to their physicians they were hallucinations brought on by trauma.
Both Miranda and Gareth are disturbed and resentful children. Gareth is forever brushing and flossing his teeth, and every morning he runs his stepfather’s toothbrush round the lavatory bowl, then puts it back in Nick’s mug. The rest of the day he glues himself to violent video games: Robocop, Action Man, Terminator. He has no friends, is terrified of being despised or bullied by his peers, and given to frightening tantrums, during which he hurls himself around and around the walls of his room. Miranda is cooperative but remote: a beady eye trained on the others, a silent presence, as menacing as any ghost.
As for Jasper, he must be the least attractive toddler in fiction. Willful and destructive in a way perfectly normal for his age, he has no winning little ways to make up for it. He just exudes shit, vomit, noise, and a chaotic scatter of accessories. One of the bleakest passages comes when the family sets out for a day’s outing by the sea, and Fran despairs at the mountain of distasteful baby gear she needs to pack for him: blankets, nappies, wipes, bibs, baby food, toys, bottles, teats, potty. She is in the last stages of pregnancy, tearful and resentful from physical malaise. Sex is no help. One night Nick makes love to her, has an orgasm, tries but fails to give her one. Then they both go to sleep.
When she wakes next morning he’s still snoring.
He’ll be full of guilt when he wakes up.
Not full enough.
Nick is a third-person character, but he’s really the narrator—or anyway interpreter—of what happens. He finds relief from the darkening family romance by visiting his grandfather. Geordie is 101 and dying after an exploratory operation that revealed inoperable bowel cancer. Nick loves the old man and spends a lot of time by his bedside during the second half of the novel, and so does the reader. It’s time well spent, because old Geordie is a completely successful creation, an uneducated working-class man of piercing intelligence, proud, sardonic, funny, and passionate. When Another World was published in England, reviewers fell in love with him. He is cared for by his seventy-year-old unmarried daughter Frieda, another inventively drawn character. Her goodness and sense of humor burrow their way out through layers of fussy, old-maidish propriety. The relationship with her nephew Nick is cleverly observed: it develops into a kind of benign complicity—even sprouting shared jokes—as they look after Geordie, then cope with his funeral.
Geordie, meanwhile, has fallen in love with Helen, a colleague of Nick’s at the university. She is a historian working on the changes that occur in our perception of the past—our continuous reinterpretation of history. Helen has been taping Geordie’s memories of the First World War. They are indescribably horrible, culminating in the death of his seventeen-year-old brother. Geordie stumbled across him in no man’s land, where he lay screaming, his guts “like fatty meat coming out of a mincing machine.” There was no hope of getting him back behind the lines, so Geordie finished him off with a knife in the heart. This episode returns to haunt him when he himself lies dying. “I am in hell,” he repeats over and over again; and after his death, Nick is haunted by this cry as Geordie was by his brother’s screams.
So in the second half of the book, the preoccupations of the trilogy return. But the climax belongs to the family saga, and occurs during the day by the sea. Gareth climbs a cliff and begins to throw pebbles down near where Jasper plays on the sand below: first just pebbles, then bigger stones land closer to the child. A stone hits him. Gareth wants to kill his brother; then he doesn’t; then he panics. “He doesn’t look like Jasper now, he’s crying and his head’s bleeding and Gareth’s terrified of him, terrified of what he’s done, so terrified it’s easier to go on than go back.” Miranda watches silently from a distance. Then, before Gareth can find a stone large enough to be lethal, Jasper’s screams wake Fran from her exhausted snooze on the beach and she rushes toward him.
Only Miranda saw what happened. Nick and Fran believe Gareth’s story that he saw Jasper fall and cut his head on a rock. The little boy is taken to the hospital, his wound stitched up, and nobody suspects Gareth. It is a variation on the Fanshawe story; and also foreshadowed at the start of the book, by invocations of recently famous British murders: serial killers like Peter Sutcliffe and the Wests, and more particularly child-killing killer children—the ten-year-old boys who abducted baby Bulger three years ago, and Mary Bell, whose biography by Gitta Sereny caused an uproar in the UK last year.
It takes only a day or two for Gareth himself to believe his version of the story: he was only throwing little pebbles. Barker is concerned with the unreliability of memory. In an article published in The Guardian in October, an interviewer wrote that in Barker’s view,
there is an objective truth—which she might call historical fact as opposed to historical interpretation. And you have to reach for it: “There is in my work the feeling that the most important thing any human being can do is to be as objective as possible about the past, that this is the only thing on which a secure identity—individual or society—can be based. And linked to this is the feeling that doing it is a virtual impossibility. Because the moment you try, all the forces of delusion, self-aggrandisement, guilt, brain-washing by public perceptions, conspire to distort the past almost as soon as it has happened.”
If that is so, then ghosts—or neurologically explicable hallucinations—are more reliable than history, whose job it is to reinterpret the past. So in the argument about historical truth that goes on between Nick, the psychologist, and Helen, the historian, it is Helen who is wrong in the interpretation of Geordie’s nightmares—even though, as a fictional character, she is so balanced, sane, understanding, loving, and charmingly benign that whatever she says sounds like the truth. She is an example of what Barker meant when, in the same Guardian interview, she said: “If you write in dialogue, as I do, you have to respect and like people who are very different from you. You have to let them say, vividly and persuasively, things with which you profoundly disagree.” Barker is very good at that, and the justice inherent in her attitude gives her writing a special authority.
Her preoccupation with memory and death recalls the German writer W.G. Sebald, whose four haunting stories about being haunted by the past were published in English in 1997 under the title The Emigrants. Barker and Sebald are very different writers, although both use genres on the border between fiction and reality. But whereas she is briskly down to earth, and writes—as she says—mostly in dialogue, he is dreamy, lyrical, and hardly uses dialogue at all. In the words of his narrator, Sebald’s theme is: “They are ever returning to us, the dead.” That is what they do throughout Barker’s trilogy, and it is Rivers’s job to make them go away. The conclusion of Another World also suggests that oblivion might be better than perpetuation through memory. After Geordie’s funeral, Nick walks in the churchyard; he looks at Geordie’s grave and at the Fanshawe tomb, where all the members of the family are buried and their names engraved, except the elder son. Like Geordie’s brother, he was killed in France and his body was never found.
Nick thinks back to the trip he made with Geordie to the battlefields and how he was “repelled” by the vast monument at Thiepval “TO THEMISSING OF THE SOMME.”
If, as Nick believes, you should go to the past, looking not for messages or warnings [which would be Helen’s justification for the study of history], but simply to be humbled by the weight of human experience that has preceded the brief flicker of your own few days, then Thiepval succeeded brilliantly.
That was before Geordie died. At the end of the book, though, Nick comes upon the oldest graves in the churchyard. The names on them have become almost illegible, and he decides “that there’s wisdom too in this: to let the innocent and the guilty, the murderers and the victims, lie together beneath their half-erased names, side by side, under the obliterating grass.” Nick’s final reflection seems almost, if not quite, to contradict what Barker told the Guardian interviewer: because, however objective one may be, however much in pursuit of “wie es wirklich gewesen,” delving into the past will disturb the sleepers in their graves. But this is exactly why Barker is so impressive: she accepts contradiction. Her novels reach for the truth, but she never pretends to have found it. A mystery always remains. That is all the truth there is; and besides, mystery is better to read about than proclamations of certainty.