The somber epigraph for Pat Barker’s tenth novel, taken from Francisco Goya, is applicable to all of her fiction:
No se puede mirar. One cannot look at this. Yo lo vi. I saw it. Esto es lo verdadero. This is the truth.
Pat Barker, best known for the Regeneration Trilogy (Regeneration, 1991; The Eye in the Door, 1993; The Ghost Road, 1995 Booker Prize winner), belongs to that small but distinguished company of postwar British writers who have taken as their subjects the brooding presence of the past, the ironic contrast between the mythopoetic and history. Though very different from the German-born W.G. Sebald, for instance, whose enigmatic and elusive fictions in the shadow of the Holocaust exude an unnerving memoirist power, and A.S. Byatt, whose elaborately structured postmodernist fictions examine “archetypes” from Victorian and Modernist perspectives, Pat Barker is, like them, both mythmaker and realist.
Whether her subject is working-class, poorly educated, and politically disenfranchised women, as in Union Street (1982) and Blow Your House Down (1984), the infirm and ghost-haunted elderly in a rapidly changing urbanized England, as in Liza’s England (1986) and Another World (1998), or elite British officers and the psychologists who treat the “shellshocked” of World War I, as in the Regeneration Trilogy, Barker’s unadorned prose is distinguished by an intensely rendered sympathy for her characters and by a vision of humanity and social justice that is austere, unflinching, and yet cautiously optimistic. Out of the muddle of human history, Barker seems to suggest, there are not only moments of individual communication and enlightenment but rituals of atonement to sustain them.
Like its immediate predecessor, Border Crossing (2001), with which it shares so many thematic preoccupations as to constitute a kind of mirror-novel, Double Vision begins with an unexpected emergency which will lead to life-transforming consequences for its principal characters. In Border Crossing, a disturbed young man plunges into a river in what turns out to be a staged suicide attempt; in Double Vision, a woman loses control of her car on a stretch of black ice, crashes, and is injured, and while semi-conscious becomes aware of the presence of another:
…A figure appeared at the [car] window. A headless figure was all she could see, since he didn’t bend to look in. She tried to speak, but only a croak came out. He didn’t move, didn’t open the door, didn’t check to see how she was, didn’t ring or go for help. Just stood there, breathing.
In time, Kate Frobisher will learn the identity of this mysterious figure: a disturbed young man who insinuates himself into her life.
These paired novels, written in the aftermath, in a sense, of the magisterial Regeneration Trilogy, represent for Barker a return to contemporary realism. Instead of “historic” figures like Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Wilfrid Owen, and the distinguished psychologist William Rivers of Craiglockhart War Hospital, who treated soldiers suffering wartime traumas, Barker’s characters in Border Crossing and Double Vision are wholly fictitious and belong to that category of person we might identify as urban, and urbane, well-educated and well-intentioned liberals who are journalists, war correspondents and photographers, social workers, psychologists, lawyers, and artists. In both novels people with whom we are meant to identify (in Border Crossing a social services psychologist, in Double Vision a talented and driven woman sculptor) are confronted by highly attractive, charismatic young men who are revealed to have committed brutal murders as children.
In both novels, a good deal is made of the need to protect the young men who have served their prison sentences and are now considered rehabilitated; wisely, Barker never presents the charming sociopaths except by way of others’ responses to them:
[Danny Miller] borrowed other people’s lives…. It was almost as if he had no shape of his own, so he wrapped himself round other people. And what you got was a…a sort of composite person. He observed other people, he knew a lot about them, and at the same time he didn’t know anything because he was always looking at this mirror image. And of course everybody let him down, because you couldn’t not let Danny down. Being a separate person was a betrayal. And then you got absolute rage.
In Double Vision, the sinister Peter Wingrave is perceived as “a cold bright star circling in chaos.”
[The vicar] felt Peter shadowing him down the corridor to the living room, almost treading on his heels. So much power this man had, and yet he seemed to have no identity, cling-filming himself round other people in order to acquire a shape.
In the novel’s most chilling scene, Wingrave dresses himself in the sculptor Kate Frobisher’s clothes and mimics her behavior in her studio as if attempting to take on her identity. In seeing her young assistant’s “utterly deranged” actions, Kate is forced to see herself and to question her own motives in having allowed him into her life:
She felt a spasm of revulsion, not from him but from herself, as if he had indeed succeeded in stealing her identity. It was easy to believe that what she’d seen in the studio, through the crack in the door, was a deranged double, a creature that in its insanity and incompetence revealed the truth about her.
Of the paired novels, Border Crossing is the starker and less ambitious, as if it were a preliminary study for Double Vision, as the somewhat stereotypical psychopath Danny Miller is a preliminary study for Peter Wingrave who, perhaps unsurprisingly, turns out to be a writer. (“There was nothing ‘neutral’ about the behavior in his stories. Torture. Mental and physical. Murder.”) In Border Crossing the reader is allowed to know from the start that Danny Miller killed an elderly woman in an unprovoked rage, at the age of ten, and that he is intent upon insinuating himself into the private life of the psychologist who testified against him at his trial. In Double Vision the reader is kept as uninformed as Kate Frobisher, who has unwittingly hired Wingrave as her assistant at the urging of a vicar who acts as the young parolee’s protector and advocate. Barker is not a satirist though her well-intentioned liberals, like the vicar, behave at times with exasperating naiveté, putting themselves and others at risk in their efforts to extend sympathy to those who perhaps don’t deserve it.
Is there a symbiotic relationship between morality and its polar opposite? Is sympathy with violence a kind of complicity with violence? How can one justify a professional fascination with evil? Is giving solace to the seemingly reformed psychopath-murderer a betrayal of his victim, and a stimulus to further crimes? Both Barker’s novels expose their protagonists to humiliation as well as physical danger, and Border Crossing forces what might be called a ritualistic ending with Danny Miller’s former psychologist at last acknowledging the bond between him and Danny, and paying homage to the long-dead, all-but-forgotten victim of Danny’s senseless crime:
There, under the lilacs, with nobody to care or know, he stood for a moment in silence, remembering Lizzie Parks.
As its title suggests, Double Vision is a portrait of doubles, in fact of matched, or ill-matched, pairs. There are two principal characters with whom we are meant to identify: Kate Frobisher, the sculptor, widow of a renowned war photographer who has died recently in post-9/11 Afghanistan, and Stephen Sharkey, Ben Frobisher’s colleague and closest friend, a journalist who quits his job and returns home to England, disillusioned with the exploitative nature of his profession and having discovered, not coincidentally, that his wife is involved with another man. Kate Frobisher is a grieving widow not unlike other grieving women in Pat Barker’s fiction who have lost their men to wartime violence:
She would never, never, never be able to accept his death, and she didn’t try. This wasn’t an illness she would recover from; it was an amputation she had to learn to live with. There was a great and surprising peace in acknowledging this.
Kate has, at least, the solace of her work: symbolically, a commission for a large sculpture of Jesus Christ, an iconic image in which she doesn’t believe.
Her husband’s collaborator, Stephen Sharkey, is yet more broken, suffering from the kind of insomnia that accompanies shell shock; he sees himself as a “pink, peeled prawn of a man.” His malaise is both emotional and intellectual for he has lost faith in the worth, even the veracity, of war reporting. He must rewrite passages in his newspaper articles at the bidding of editors; he must falsify what he knows to have been true even as the photographic images for which his colleague Ben Frobisher sacrificed his life can be exploited to suggest events that have never occurred:
He kept telling himself it didn’t matter, but all the time he knew it did. Images before words every single time. And yet the images never explain anything and often, even unintentionally, mislead.
Stephen is haunted specifically by the image of a young girl he and Ben discovered in a ruin of a house in Sarajevo, a dead rape victim with “splayed thighs enclosing a blackness of blood and pain,” whose photograph Ben took. Stephen’s revulsion is both visceral and cerebral:
No way of telling whether this was a casual crime—a printer wanting his money back, a drug deal gone wrong—or a sectarian killing linked to the civil war. Increasingly crime and war shade into each other, Stephen thought. No difference to their victims, certainly…. Patriot, soldier, revolutionary, freedom fighter, terrorist, murderer—cross-section their brains at the moment of killing and the differences might prove rather hard to find.
Stephen’s disillusionment we might recognize as symptomatic of the media age in which wars appear on TV screens “as a kind of son et lumière display” and human suffering becomes a branch of entertainment: “What happens to public opinion in democracies—traditionally reluctant to wage war—when the human cost of battle is invisible?” Barker suggests that what was new about war in Baghdad and Belgrade was a combination of media censorship and “massive, one-sided aerial bombardment so that allied casualties were minimal or non-existent and ‘collateral damage’ couldn’t be shown.” Stephen’s return to England from a war-ravaged foreign country is measured ironically against tragic/sentimental images of a tradition of war-mythologizing:
A man gets off a train, looks at the sky and the surrounding fields, then shoulders his kitbag and sets off from the station, trudging up half-known roads, unloading hell behind him, step by step.
It’s part of English mythology, that image of the soldier returning, but it depends for its power upon the existence of an unchanging countryside…. Certainly Stephen had returned to find a countryside in crisis. Boarded-up shops and cafés, empty fields, strips of yellow tape that nobody had bothered to remove even after the paths reopened, just as nobody had bothered to remove the disinfectant mats that now lay at the entrance to every tourist attraction, bleached and baking in the sun.
It’s an inspired coup for Barker to bring Stephen back to an English countryside devastated by government hysteria over the recent outbreak of mad cow disease.
The characters of a typical Barker novel inhabit what might be called islands of privileged consciousness within a larger despoiled or chaotic environment, usually urban. Double Vision provides a combination of the pastoral and the urban: characters may be living in the country, but are urban-oriented in their professions and preoccupations. Complaining of the terrible stench of burned slaughtered animals in the countryside near his home, Stephen’s brother Robert acknowledges his and his family’s privileged position in the area:
It started two miles down the road. We got the first blast. They closed the roads—sent in the army. You could smell the carcasses for miles. I used to smell them on my skin at work… I say “we” but of course it isn’t “we.” We’re not part of it. Country life, I mean. We just float on the surface like scum…. Buy up the houses. Commute into work. We don’t give anything back.
More typically in a Barker novel, it’s a despoiled and threatening urban setting in which her highly sensitive, articulate characters bear witness to what D.H. Lawrence called the “disintegrated lifelessness of soul” that resulted from the rapacious industrialization of the Midlands in the early decades of the twentieth century. Lawrence would seem to be Barker’s great influence, not so much in language as in vision; the prevailing stench of smoldering animal carcasses in the English countryside, like the prevailing stench of the chicken slaughtering house in Barker’s painfully observed saga of prostitutes, Blow Your House Down, is a Lawrentian touch, both symbolic and “historic.” If Barker expresses little of Lawrence’s impassioned rage, it may be because such passion, such rage, such overwrought prose of the kind we call Lawrentian, is no longer fashionable, though the emotions such language expresses are no less relevant now than they were in Lawrence’s time.
In Border Crossing, set in Newcastle, the empty-souled Danny Miller stages his suicide attempt amid a “mist like a sweat” at the edge of “what had once been a thriving area of docks, quays, and warehouses, now derelict and awaiting demolition”; to haul Danny from the river, the psychologist Tom Seymour must plunge into “thick, black, oily, stinking mud, not the inert stuff you encounter in country lanes and scrape off your boots at the end of the day, but a sucking quagmire.” Once-thriving Newcastle has become an urban shell in which, one is meant to think, child psychopaths like Danny Miller at the age of ten are a natural spawn:
Every house left vacant here was stripped of fireplaces, bathroom fittings, pipes, roof tiles, and set on fire, either for fun or because the owners, despairing of selling or letting the property, paid children to do it. At the corner of the street there was a skip full of burning rubbish. A knot of children, on the other side of it, shimmered in the heat, like reflections in water.
In Double Vision, the former war correspondent Stephen Sharkey looks with appalled fascination upon adolescent children running wild at a fair in an unidentified city near the moors:
They seemed to wade through noise, lean into it. Young girls, faces blank in the yellow, green, and purple lights, shouted and screamed, while gangs of youths stared after them, their bristly scalps slick with sweat. In the male guffawing, which both acknowledged and discounted the girls’ presence, there was a yelp of pain. The clammy night, the syrupy music oozing like sweat from every pore, the smell of beer on belched breath as another group of youths walked past, combined to produce a sexual tension that hung over everything, as palpable as heat.
Yet more palpably, in Newcastle:
…Starlings were beginning to gather, huge folds and swaths of them coiling, spiralling, circling, and everywhere their clicks and chatterings, as insistent as cicadas. Beneath this frenzy, another frenzy of people rushing home from work, shopping; young people setting off for a night out; girls, half naked, standing in shop doorways; young men in short sleeves, muscular arms wreathed in blue, green, red and purple, dragons and serpents coiled round veined biceps. He passed a gaggle of girls, the pink felt penises on top of their heads bobbing about in the wind…. Perhaps [Stephen] gaped too obviously, for one of them turned round and stuck two fingers in the air.
The subtly rendered “double vision” of the novel is provided by alternating and overlapping chapters presenting Kate’s and Stephen’s perspectives. The two are united in their grief for the newly deceased Ben Frobisher, but they don’t become lovers, fortunately. Kate’s mysterious young assistant Peter Wingrave is revealed to have been the first lover of Stephen’s twenty-year-old girlfriend, Justine, which links Kate and Stephen in another, seemingly more sinister way, but by the end of the novel Wingrave has become almost irrelevant, as if Barker lost interest in the doppelgänger motif. After much effort, Kate manages to complete her heroic sculpted Christ; Stephen realizes that he is seriously in love with Justine after a housebreaking episode in which she is brutally assaulted by local thugs. Abruptly and rather awkwardly, Barker drops Kate Frobisher from the novel, and the final chapters belong solely to Stephen, who takes a trip with Justine to the windswept Fames Islands that has the effect of exorcising the trauma he experienced in Sarajevo: “Last night had been extraordinary—the sex passionate and yet interspersed with tender, almost sexless kisses. He had been so afraid of hurting her.”
If the ending of Barker’s provocative and timely novel is something less than inspired, like the “upbeat” endings of other of her novels, it’s a measure of this ambitious writer’s effort not simply to bear witness to the terrible truths of our era—to tell us, with Goya, This is the truth—but to bring such truths home, so to speak, to the despoiled English landscape.
December 18, 2003