by Pat Barker
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 278 pp., $25.00
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 …