Pat Barker's characters pursue their author from novel to novel. Billy Prior worked his way through the three volumes of the Regeneration trilogy. Now Peter Wingrave, in Double Vision, seems to be the same young man, Danny, who caused criminal trouble in Border Crossing, Pat Barker's previous novel. If so, he's successfully reinvented himself here, one book on, under an alias. Deft and committed as a lover, creepy as a stalker, he inserts himself into other people's lives, tries almost to become them. In particular, he haunts the studio of Kate Frobisher, a sculptor struggling to complete a figure of Christ. Kate has been incapacitated by an accident, and needs help to get her commission done on time. Wingrave acts as her assistant, but is intrusive and meddling, prowling at night and interfering with the work. Kate, who is ferociously independent, is both fascinated and repelled.
Barker makes Wingrave a graduate of a creative writing course, a sharp youth with ambitions to publish his writing. Our ears prick up. The author as conman, as faker? Certainly this writer of realism, like many of her 19th-century forbears, conceals herself in her prose, strives to create an illusion in which we believe utterly, tricks us, if you like, into accepting her world as unquestionably real. Pat Barker's novels do not draw attention to their writing, their process of construction. She makes you look through her prose as though it were a window of clear glass. What matters is the view outside. One of her strengths is the uncompromisingly honest naming of things as she sees them. She works in a traditional mould and has no interest in breaking it.
A major theme running through all her novels concerns the power of memory, its apparently capricious jumps and swerves, its reliability and unreliability. Many other novelists, of course, are similarly fascinated. A pattern of story has been laid down, in our post-Freudian times, which, simplistically perhaps, apes a lay perception of neurosis and healing. Shock or trauma in the present is followed by a regression to the past, where old horrors must be confronted. Finally, having come to terms with pain and grief, the protagonist moves on.
This narrative shape has become so hackneyed as to be almost impossible to undertake any more. Pat Barker has managed to avoid these pitfalls. Her distinctive handling of the motifs around the return of the repressed has involved moving away from the field of the personal to studying mass trauma, mass regression, in the fields of war and political violence. By concentrating, recently, on male heroes and anti-heroes she has similarly avoided being criticised, as women so often are, for writing about the domestic, the feminine sphere. So in this novel she has focused on the after-effects of war in Sarajevo and Afghanistan, studying the inarticulate semi-friendship between Stephen Sharkey, a war reporter, and Ben Frobisher, a war photographer, Kate's former husband, who has been shot dead on an assignment.
Stephen, who is the main narrator for the novel, meditates on the morality of photographing dead rape victims, on how to live with his dreadful memories, on how to mend himself. No counselling for him. Sex does pretty well as a substitute. He becomes involved with Justine, 20 years his junior (who has previously been the lover of Peter Wingate), finding with her both oblivion and ecstasy. Barker does not go into detail about their lovemaking, instead presenting the reader with characteristically unsentimental post-coital musings: "It took him a long time. The last thing he'd expected, after several weeks of celibacy, was to be left standing on the starting blocks with his shorts around his ankles."
Interwoven with these themes of creativity, violence and memory are satirical riffs on modern urban and country life. Various marriages shift and crack. Middle-aged spouses agonise over their differences. The best writing in the book embodies Stephen's and Kate's responses to the natural and material world. Winter, changes in the weather, and the dreadful toll exacted by foot and mouth are precisely observed, swiftly rendered.
Sometimes, Barker's writing, when it moves people from room to room in a businesslike way, can seem flat. The novel's espousal of realism allows some oddly old-fashioned generalisations about "silly menopausal women" to creep in. Similarly, Kate, as a resolutely figurative and non-experimental sculptor, thinks female bodies unsuitable to express heroic emotions and suffering. Renaissance artists had no problem with this, though Kate thinks they did. The final paragraph, featuring Stephen and Justine walking along the beach into the dawn, seems trite. What stays with the reader are Barker's unflinching intelligence and dry humour, her undoubted compassion and commitment, the glimpses of terror and brutality that resurface in Stephen's mind.
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