"There's a Barbara Vine book called A Dark-Adapted Eye. That's what you've got," someone says to Stephen Sharkey, central character of Pat Barker's latest novel. "People get into darkness, to the point where it's the light that hurts."
Having covered it all, from Bosnia to Ground Zero, foreign correspondent Stephen has hung up his flak jacket and gone to ground in a cottage on his brother's land, in a rural north-east devastated by the foot-and-mouth disaster. Two things have particularly moved him - the body of a raped and mutilated girl on a stairwell in Sarajevo, and the death of his war photographer friend, Ben Frobisher, shot while taking his own last shot on a road in Afghanistan.
Ben's sculptress widow, Kate, lives nearby, neck in a brace from a road accident but determined to complete the huge figure of Christ she is making for the cathedral. Unwillingly, she has hired for the heavy work a young assistant, the personable but unsettling Peter Wingrave, who comes recommended by her philanthropic vicar friend. The vicar is father of Stephen's girlfriend, the much younger Justine, a fresh-faced, sensible girl who has a romantic history with the mysterious Peter.
This is a community underpinned by secrets. A sense of unease pervades. The vicar dreams the trees are coming in his windows. At the fair, the mouths of the crowd put Stephen in mind of the agonised mouths in Goya's paintings of war atrocities. We are reminded of the violence of history, running through time like writing on a stick of rock. When Stephen and Justine take a trip to the Farne Islands, we are informed the boatmen are descendants of Vikings who raped and pillaged the area. Time and again we are made aware that the monstrous can arise in a moment.
Long fascinated by the darker side of the human condition, Barker is drawn repeatedly by war and its consequences. Justine, who declares that watching dreadful things on the news is "just wanking", condemns such voyeurism, questioning Stephen's career. How much horror need we be shown? What draws him to a profession created out of witnessing tragedy?
Stephen flounders for an answer: "Knowledge. Access to secrets ... Giving people the raw materials to make moral judgements." In an age when war is shown on TV "as a kind of son et lumière display [and] the human cost of battle is invisible", people like Stephen and Ben risk life and sanity to force people to look at the terrible reality. Barker quotes Goya: "One cannot look at this. I saw it. This is the truth."
With its topicality, smooth narrative drive and large cast of characters, this is the kind of novel that would dramatise well. The prose is plain for long stretches, bursting every now and again into patches of exquisite description, and there is some sharply observed dialogue. It is no surprise when the violent event signalled from the beginning occurs. Providing the link between several threads of narrative, this draws parallels between the violence of the individual and the collective violence of mass conflict. Barker, never afraid of tackling big themes, is sharply aware of the discrepancy between the modern liberal view on crime and punishment and the urge for brutal revenge which arises in even the mildest breast when the victim is one of its own.
Double Vision is a book of ideas and plot, not of particularly deep characterisation. It's also a book of issues: the rehabilitation of offenders, embryo research, children who murder. Fortunately, Pat Barker is wise enough to know that there are no simple answers. This is a book of dilemmas with no clear solutions, improved by its loose ends.
Carol Birch's 'Turn Again Home' (Virago) has been long-listed for the Man Booker PrizeReuse content