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 the end of a mile-long track so potholed that only a Land Rover could manage it.” The other is a pitch-black comedy featuring a nightmare family in a run-down tenement.
But the most remarkable feature of Barker’s writing is an extraordinary gift for evoking mood and atmosphere while using only a very few adjectives. In Border Crossing, for instance, Tom worries about his young patient Danny—possibly homicidal, more likely suicidal—traveling home alone to an empty Newcastle flat after a particularly agonizing session:
Tom was aware, almost telepathically, of every stage of Danny’s journey home: rocking backwards and forwards on the Metro, gazing blank-eyed at the advertisements opposite while the grey walls lined with bunched and corded cables hurtle past. Then the train glides to a halt between graffiti-daubed walls. Danny gets out and pushes his ticket into the turnstile, which disgorges him into a night of rain and wind, of orange light smeared over greasy streets, and then, turning up his coat against the cold he’s away from the noise and crowd, striding down dark streets, where once-imposing houses loom over him, until he goes down a flight of steps to a basement flat, takes out his keys, lets himself in. And there, in the dingy hall with its black-and-white tiles and single naked bulb, he loses him.
Danny is twenty-three. He was ten when he killed an old woman called Lizzie Parks who lived on dry cornflakes and kept cats. He’s been locked up ever since, first in a young offenders’ institution, then in an adult prison. During the last year, he’s been out on probation.
In Another World one child killed another; and a generation later a second child very nearly kills his younger half-brother. The first killing takes place before the story begins, and the ghost of the killer’s young sister, who didn’t prevent or report it, may—or may not—haunt the house into which the present-day psychologist has just moved with his dysfunctional family. Even he isn’t sure whether he’s seen a ghost or not.
The psychiatrist’s young stepson is a disturbed child. One day he almost kills his baby half-brother by throwing stones at him from a cliff as he lies on the beach below. The baby is hurt but not fatally: the boys’ mother intervenes just in time. Barker’s own timing is significant and surely deliberate. Another World was published when the British press was still obsessed with the Bulger case—the abduction from a supermarket and subsequent murder of a two-year-old boy by two boys aged ten and eleven. Today these boys are only a few months away from the date of their release. They are to be given new identities, and that is causing another frenzy in a public egged on by the press.
Border Crossing is so close to the Bulger case in this newest phase that you could read the book as a deliberate provocation—or even as an intervention on behalf of the young killers to be left in peace. In Barker’s novel the little boy Danny has a miserable background. He is an only child who worships his bully of a father. The father walks out on him and his sick mother, leaving her to work their failing chicken farm all alone just after she’s had her second mastectomy. Danny doesn’t murder a baby. He murders an old woman—Lizzie—for no apparent motive and in a particularly horrifying way, returning the next day to “play with” her body.
Tom is called in to examine Danny and to give professional testimony at his trial: the sentence hangs on whether or not the ten-year-old realized that death is final. Knowing he lives on a chicken farm, Tom gets the child to assent to a deadly question: “If you wring a chicken’s neck, you don’t expect to see it running around the yard the next day, do you?” The whole courtroom gasps; and the jury changes its mind about the verdict. They were going to pronounce Danny too young to understand what he was doing: now they convict him. Danny is detained, first for eight years in a young offenders’ institution, and after that for four more years in prison. Then he is released with a false identity under the name of Ian Wilkinson. Naturally, he blames Tom for his fate; and Tom, too, has remained troubled by the case during the thirteen years that have passed. He tries to convince himself that his contribution to Danny’s conviction was comparatively trivial.
The novel begins with a shock. Barker is good at administering shock treatment to her readers. On a Sunday morning in deep winter Tom and his beautiful, unhappy wife, Lauren, go for a walk along the Tyne to discuss their failing marriage. He has become impotent—mainly, he thinks, because of her anxiety to conceive before it’s too late. Suddenly they notice a young man dive into the icy, fast-flowing river. It’s clearly not a swim, but suicide. Tom jumps in after him, and manages to rescue him (and himself) with great difficulty. They haven’t seen each other for thirteen years. Later, in the hospital, Danny recognizes him after regaining consciousness. He talks about coincidence.
Tom isn’t so sure that that is what it is. Throughout the rest of the novel he realizes more and more that Danny has grown up to be not only good-looking but highly intelligent, dangerously charming, and ruthlessly manipulative. He is also well educated, because, owing to his exceptional brightness, he had private lessons at the detention center, which was run like an old-fashioned boys’ boarding school, only with more locks and prohibitions. Afterward, in prison, he studied for a degree. Now he’s a university student.
After the incident by the river, Danny tells his probation officer, Martha Pitt, that he would like to talk to Tom. Martha thinks it’s a good idea. She and Tom are old friends. They’ve often worked together. Nicknamed Pitt Bull Martha, she is a feisty, foul-mouthed, funny, perceptive, understanding chain-smoker who worms her way into the reader’s affection by stealth: she is everything a character in a novel needs to be for maximum effectiveness. When Lauren at last moves out and asks for a divorce, Martha’s relations with Tom gradually and convincingly develop from professional comradeship into something more, and potentially more permanent. A happy ending looms for Tom—looms rather than beckons, because a comforting, upbeat outcome hardly seems right for this fierce and subtle story.
Especially since a happy ending looms for Danny too. The beginning of the end of the story is a brilliantly orchestrated drama: the press finds out Danny/Ian Wilkinson’s real identity and reporters mob him as he takes shelter with Tom. The police come to the rescue and Danny is sent to the south of England and given a new probation officer and another new identity. He doesn’t communicate with either Tom or Martha. Then Tom is invited to lecture at the fictional University of Wessex. He recognizes Danny among the students. They greet each other, talk briefly, and agree that Danny shouldn’t reveal his new identity even to Tom. Tom watches him merge into a group of students:
One of the girls kissed him. A young man threw a proprietorial arm across his shoulder. Tom wondered if either of them knew who he was.
But no. Danny would have learnt to take what he wanted and keep a safe distance. There was no limit to what Danny might learn.
And that’s the way it has to be, Tom thought. He was looking at success. Precarious, shadowed, ambiguous, but worth having nevertheless. The only possible good outcome.
The next (and last) passage begins:
The smell of lilacs was overwhelming. Tom closed his eyes for a moment, shutting out the sight of Danny and his friends, and saw instead, with almost visionary clarity, a woman with white hair walking down a garden path, five or six cats following her, their tails raised in greeting. She lifted a handful of dry cornflakes to her mouth and ate them, peering into the sun she could hardly see, enjoying its warmth on her face.
There under the lilacs, with nobody to care or know, he stood for a moment in silence, remembering Lizzie Parks.
And that’s the end. It’s not Lizzie’s first shot at being a ghost or something close to one: in his sessions with Tom, Danny revealed that she’d been to see him several times. He found that frightening. Her appearance to Tom, on the other hand, might seem to be carrying optimism too far. But it has to be swallowed, because until the last paragraphs, Border Crossing, with its faultless interweaving of Tom’s private problems and the tense story of Danny’s survival, is a book that never loosens its grip.