Books: Howls from Geordie's ghost

Michael Arditti sees a history-haunted writer turn fire on the present; Another World by Pat Barker Viking, pounds 16.99, 278pp
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The Independent Culture
PAT BARKER may have abandoned historical fiction for the more complex task of interpreting the present, but her new novel remains saturated in the past. Another World opens in the grim, gang-ridden streets of contemporary Newcastle, but when the central character, Nick, returns to Lob's Hill - his Victorian home on the other side of the city - so the novel's interior landscape becomes increasingly shaped by the past.

Lob's Hill was originally built by the industrialist William Fanshawe for his wife and three children. Nick's home life is more tortuous. He lives with his pregnant wife Fran, their two-year-old son Jasper, and Fran's 11-year-old stepson, Gareth. Meanwhile, his own 13-year-old daughter, Miranda, has arrived for the summer while her mother is in a mental hospital.

Barker expertly conveys the tensions in this dislocated family. There is no love lost between either child and its step-parent. When Miranda greets Fran, there is a moment when she "contemplates the hypocrisy of a kiss and rejects it". Gareth, who is obsessive about his own dental hygiene, rubs Nick's toothbrush in the lavatory bowl.

Both children are alienated from their younger brother. Miranda resents the assumption that, as a girl, she must respond to babies; Gareth's hostility is more overt. When his mother says that Jasper needs changing, Gareth asks if "we can change him for one that doesn't scream".

Nick and Fran hope that their move to Lob's Hill will herald a new beginning, but the reverse seems true when they discover an obscene painting of Fanshawe and his family. The picture seems to embody a malign emotional force, and shortly afterwards, both Miranda and Nick see a spectral girl.

A more sinister twist is given to this manifestation when Nick discovers that Fanshawe's infant son James was murdered, and the prime suspects were his own brother and sister. He is gripped by the fear that Gareth and Miranda will do Jasper similar harm.

As the family tensions take a violent turn, the central issue is whether history is repeating itself or whether the past is insinuating itself into the present. The influence of the past is also the subject of the second key strand, which involves Nick's grandfather, Geordie.

A First World War veteran, dying of cancer, he is assailed by memories of his brother Harry, who died at the Somme and whom he claims to have killed. Nick is left to decide whether this is an old man's ravings, or if there is truth in the claim.

Another World is an emotionally raw novel whose various strands never quite cohere. It is as if Barker has failed to decide the kind of book she wishes to write. As she examines its effect on survivors, and includes transcripts from interviews with Geordie, it is clear that the First World War continues to exert a powerful hold on her imagination. Yet these passages threaten to unbalance the narrative.

Likewise, Barker sets up the device of the picture only to leave it dangling. In spite of the presence of a ghostly figure who may be Muriel Fanshawe, the relationship of past and present is never resolved. It is not that one wants each loose end to be tied up neatly, but when there are too many, any broader scheme unravels.

Where the novel scores is in its portrait of a family in thrall to its own irreconcilable histories. Barker's drawing of Miranda's and Gareth's alienation is powerful. The tension as Jasper plays on the beach and Gareth throws down rocks is stomach-churning. When she focuses on this world, rather than another one, Barker shows herself supreme.