Books: Male insensitivity, female nagging and children's selfishness

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The Independent Culture
Another World by Pat Barker Viking pounds 16.99

The 1914-1918 war continues to haunt Pat Barker's imagination, making her write as a passionate and troubled witness who insists on asking awkward questions. While in her Regeneration trilogy she explored the lives and deaths of the soldiers in the trenches and the way that contemporary psychological medicine patched up their wounded psyches and sent them back to the front, in this new novel she investigates how traumatic memories recur to attack survivors of the Great War over 80 years later. The core of her powerful story concerns the tussle in two men's souls over the wish to forget and to flee and the need to remember and take stock, and the way that modern culture applauds one kind of memory at the expense of others.

The scene is set in modern Newcastle, a city relentlessly divided between haves and have-nots, between the derelict waste-sites masquerading as housing estates and the anxious leafiness of suburbs in which horrors are quickly hushed up. Nick and his family have just moved to a Victorian house in Lob's Hill. Turreted towers, roses round the windows and enough bedrooms to accommodate the children he and Fran bring from their previous marriages are all supposed to inaugurate an idyll. But the new house provides less shelter than space for things to fall apart. Marital conflicts erupt. The teenagers sulk and have tantrums. The toddler creates havoc. Family life is depicted as a nightmare of sour bickering, male insensitivity, female nagging, children's selfishness.

Late 20th-century English urban existence has no grace, no joy, no pleasure, no sensuality. Fran, heavily pregnant, permanently exhausted, unhappy and responsible for clearing up all the mess, lives the kind of glum, exasperated martyrdom that makes you understand why separatist feminists raced for the hills and recommended lesbianism as a solution. Wifehood and motherhood, in our culture, carry the insignia of certain heroism, the invisible feminine equivalent of the medals doled out to the troops returning from slaughter. They're supposed to indicate that you're mature and grown-up; in touch with reality. But at what price? Fran's is the kind of resentful servitude that Jeanette Winterson challenged so vehemently in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Pat Barker's narrative deploys the repetition of tiny, irritating detail to tremendous effect, rubbing our noses in domestic misery but leaving us to draw our own conclusions.

If Fran can't escape her claustrophobic world, Nick can. He leaps into the car and goes to visit his grandfather Geordie, who's over 100 years old and finally dying. Geordie fought in the trenches to safeguard the civilisation his descendants are currently failing to enjoy. He smokes his cigarettes and endures the humiliations and agonies of terminal cancer and is tormented by the sudden return of memories from the other end of the century.

The chapters describing Nick's love, tenderness and compassion towards the old man form the real heart of the novel. Listening to tapes of Geordie's war reminiscences made by Helen, a historian interested in the cultural and political manipulation of memory, Nick begins to understand that the past walks alongside us, dances and cries inside us, and can't be neatly labelled and put away. While he struggles to impose form and meaning on Geordie's night- time terrors, he simultaneously uncovers information about a murder committed many years ago in his own house. Barker sketches in a ghost story with a light hand, to illuminate her central themes of guilt and forgetting, but it remains decorative rather than structural. The message of the novel is superbly carried by Nick's consciousness as he cares for Geordie, holding the old man in his arms and in his imagination, tending to him physically, emotionally, spiritually.

These encounters, these kinds of caring, seem far sweeter and deeper than anything Fran can achieve. Nick is given an inner freedom and largeness of heart she just cannot possess. The novel suggests that men have to suffer horribly as soldiers forced into war and subsequently into poverty, but that they are compensated with a kind of existential grandeur. Women, by contrast, struggle dourly on inside limited horizons with stunted imaginations. No wonder, then, that Pat Barker pours her sympathy and poetry mainly into her male characters. Even the hideous teenage nerd Gareth has more life than his twitchy step-sister Miranda, just as Miranda's mother Frances is early on cast into a mental hospital and then never mentioned again. It's as though masculine concerns and experience really inspire Barker now, offering a new world to explore, bigger and brighter than the conventional feminine sphere, one that lets her get going and spread her wings. In the process she gives us this compelling, moving and disturbing novel.