The Mythmaking Realist

Double Vision

by Pat Barker
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 258 pp., $23.00

Pat Barker
Pat Barker; drawing by David Levine

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,…

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