Border Crossing by Pat Barker<br></br>Licks of Love by John Updike<br></br>A Son of War by Melvyn Bragg

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Border Crossing by Pat Barker (Penguin £6.99, 281pp)

Set along the banks of a very washed-up River Tyne, Pat Barker's ninth novel, returns to a favourite theme – the relationship between a psychologist and his patient. In this case, unlike her trilogy Regeneration, the patient isn't a veteran of trench warfare, but a 10-year-old boy convicted of the murder of an elderly woman. Shades of Jamie Bulger haunt a novel that examines the conundrum of childhood evil, and the uneasy premium society places on the power of redemption.

The novel opens with a symbolic rescue. Out for a walk along the docks, child psychologist Tom Seymour dives into the icy river to save a drowning man. The attempted suicide turns out to be a former patient, Danny Miller, whom as a boy Tom's expert testimony helped to put behind bars. Now out on parole, Danny engages Tom in an extended bout of Moral Maze-style disputation. His combative presence stalks the novel like a time bomb waiting to explode.

Aside from the over-long exchanges between Tom and Danny, Barker's novel is a gutsy read. The dialogue is sharp, the north-east setting atmospheric and the domestic scenes between Tom and his soon-to-be divorced wife, Lauren, indecently absorbing. Final answers as to the efficacy of rehabilitation and personal remorse are left blowing in the wind. Required reading for David Blunkett et al.

Licks of Love by John Updike (Penguin £7.99, 359pp)

In one of the best stories here, "How Was It, Really?", a father is quizzed by his grown children about bringing them up. Finding it almost impossible to recall, the narrator can't answer – did he help his children with their homework? Did he and his wife go shopping? In a collection that includes a sequel to his Rabbit novels, Updike's babyboom fathers look back with incredulity on a Chartreuse-tinted era of mid-week parties and affairs – a lifestyle that precluded ever getting the children "decently fed and into bed". How was it, really? A shelf-full of of Updike novels provides the answer.

A Son of War by Melvyn Bragg (Sceptre £6.99, 426pp)

The sequel to The Soldier's Return finds Bragg's hero, Sam Richardson, back from his wartime service in Burma, and trying to make a go of his old life in Wigton. During his absence, mother and son have built their own unit, and Bragg traces the cost of Sam's return – from Joe's upset at being ousted from the maternal bed to Ellen's refusal to accept the assumption that life for her son would be a series of "closed doors and poor jobs". Bragg's deeply felt account of Northern working-class life closes with Sam finding the time to let memory breathe and to "give his life credit".