Pat Barker is a professional historian, but her last five novels have concentrated on psychiatry, with the psychiatrist not only on the couch alongside his patients, but also in the narrator’s chair: it is through his eyes that we observe the tale unfolding, even though the narrative is in the third, not the first, person. Crudely put, the purpose of analysis or therapy is to take the conflict, and therefore the thrill, out of the patient’s predicament; and also inevitably though possibly regretfully, the afflatus, the make-believe, the poetry. So Barker’s is an extraordinary achievement because she manages to be down to earth, poetic, and thrilling, all in the same paragraph. Her new novel, Border Crossing, in fact is thrilling to the point of being a thriller. One of the two main characters is an inscrutable young murderer out on parole: Hannibal junior, maybe. A frisson of danger runs through the text.
Barker’s best-known work is the Regeneration trilogy. Published between 1991 and 1995, it consists of three historical novels, two of which have won prizes. They are set in, before, and just after the First World War, and center on Dr. W.H.R. Rivers. He was a real-life social anthropologist and neurologist, who treated soldiers hospitalized for “shell shock,” i.e., for severe neuroses brought on by their experiences in the trenches. The hero of her next novel, Another World (1998), is an academic psychologist; and in Border Crossing, one of the two main characters is Tom, a psychiatrist regularly consulted by lawyers and social workers in connection to their cases. (The other is the young ex-convict Danny, who has become Tom’s unofficial patient.)
The title Another World implies a border crossed almost as much as Border Crossing does. The borders Barker explores lie between sanity and madness; memory and historical fact; ghosts and hallucination; and, though more incidentally in her latest novel, between social classes. But then, that is an almost unavoidable strand in the English novel. As one of the characters in The Ghost Road (the third novel in the Regeneration trilogy) furiously remarks, “You couldn’t go for a walk anywhere in Scarborough without seeing the English class system laid out before you in all its full, intricate horror.”
It is tempting to draw comparisons between Barker and the Brontës (Emily for ghosts, Charlotte for neuroses), especially since all three are northerners who set their haunted and haunting stories on wuthering heights (and in Barker’s case among Blake’s satanic mills as well). The skies are mostly dark with driving rain and snow offset by rare, magical summer interludes of light and warmth. But Barker is not lyrical and tempestuous like Emily: she is as grim, blunt, and taciturn as northerners are supposed to be, even in her humor, which is considerable, though only occasionally deployed. There are two wickedly funny episodes in Border Crossing: one a satirical account of “the Scarsdale Writers’ Centre,” an earnest literary workshop “at …