The books interview: Transit and transgression

Patricia Duncker drives a macho van and writes fiction that crosses every track. Julie Wheelwright meets her
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The Independent Culture
I am sitting in a spanking new taxi next to novelist Patricia Duncker as we creep through the thick morning traffic towards Primrose Hill. Suddenly she throws up a hand and takes a slow drag on an invisible Gauloise. "It always happens when my French friend Nicole's driving my van," she explains, her aviator sunglasses catching a glint of sun. "I'll be sitting there and suddenly I'll hear, `Hey Patreesha, the cops are behind us again'."

In Duncker's other life, when she's not teaching literature and creative writing at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, she lives in France and drives a big, macho van which creates havoc on the motorways. "It's what the French call a voiture mec, a man's car, so only a man should be driving it," she explains. "And the cops admit that they always pull me over because I'm a woman driving a man's car. The French have a very strict notion of gender and get a bit ratty if you transgress it." Then she lets out a whoop of laughter, as fresh and bright as the rose buds in the park.

However ratty the response, Duncker is a woman who revels in crossing boundaries and setting fire to cliches. Her first novel, Hallucinating Foucault, was a sophisticated thriller about a student who tracks down French intellectual Paul Michel, and dealt with madness, death, sexuality and the criminal mind. It won her, aged 45, excellent reviews, a major prize and a well-earned place in the literary limelight.

Duncker's second novel, James Miranda Barry (Serpent's Tail, pounds 10.99), is already destined for an equal critical success. It draws upon a real character to recreate an internal and invisible world. But Dr Barry doesn't just drive the voiture mec; she becomes the man, in her mission to work as a military doctor in Britain's 19th-century Empire. The result is a lushly compelling story with Duncker creeping deep inside the mind of a woman who must live another gender. He/she is, by turns, irascible, charming, brilliant and sympathetic.

There is little known about the real James Miranda Barry, but scandal erupted after his death in 1865, when an Irish charwoman was brought in to wash the corpse of the famous colonial doctor. She complained it belonged to "a perfect female" and even bore signs of an earlier pregnancy. Dr Barry, niece (or nephew) to the painter James Barry, came from an aristocratic family that had landed on hard times. His widowed mother, Mrs Bulkeley, was the lover of General Francisco de Miranda, a soldier and scholar who once courted Catherine the Great and Madame de Stael. Whatever the circumstances, young James Barry was enrolled in medical school at Edinburgh University, aged 12, and later became a renowned colonial medical officer in South Africa, Malta and Canada.

"My interest in passing women is that they seemed to be natural gender transgressors, and raise questions about the roles assigned to them in their lives," says Duncker, who admits to occassionally barging into the men's toilets to see if she can get away with it. "When you're in a role occupied by men, you operate like a man. You're in a structure that makes you a bloke. Especially if you're not a girly girl, they treat you like a man. It helps if you're very large or wearing a uniform."

Although it appears that a conspiracy of powerful patrons decided that this delicate but highly intelligent girl should become a man, Duncker leaves James's fate largely in the hands of his/her mother. Mrs Bulkeley is dependent upon men all her life and realises her daughter can only attain liberty through economic self-sufficiency. Duncker, whose politics were shaped by Greenham Common, the miners' strike and by feminism, provides Mrs Bulkeley with a political motive for changing her daughter's gender.

"I often puzzled about his mother," says Duncker as we settle comfortably on a bench in Primrose Hill. "I realised that his mother felt very strongly that she didn't want her child to be passed from man to man as she had been. She wanted James to earn her own living."

The fictional Mrs Bulkeley strikes a bargain with James Barry the painter, General Francisco de Miranda, and a wealthy patron, David Erskine. They summon the 10-year-old child from a party on a midsummer's night. And like Puck, they change her into a boy, with the words "Welcome aboard, James Miranda Barry. You'd be wasted as a woman. Join the men." Shakespeare crops up frequently in the novel and Duncker admits this is a tribute to the "master gender-bender".

But the piercing psychic truth in Duncker's novel lies in her ability to see Barry through a prism of conflicting emotions. For everything that Barry gains as a man, there are freedoms that he loses. As the novel progresses from his/her happy childhood in Shropshire through Barry's medical training in Edinburgh and on to South Africa and the West Indies, he becomes increasingly isolated. His sexuality is damaged, he cannot trust even his closest friends, and becomes estranged from his body.

Duncker describes the daily torment of occupying a female body while living as a man. "He was no longer at home in his stunted body. This sense of unease pervaded his gestures, his gait, his habit of taking stock of his surroundings, as if he feared the approach of an assassin." He hated to be touched, always slept in a darkened room and made a series of poodles, all called Psyche, his intimates.

Caught between genders, Barry himself grows into the mask of Chief Medical Officer, intellectual and martinet that the outside world sees. "And now I feel like two people," he laments to his one confidante, the actress Alice Jones. "One of them is true and one is a charade. I don't know which one is real. And mostly I feel that neither one really exists."

As the novel progresses towards Barry's sojourn in the West Indies, he becomes disillusioned with Empire, another powerful theme in Duncker's writing. "Why can I achieve so little here?" he laments from his posting in Jamaica. "This place has defeated me, this sweating humid bush, jiggers in the dust, white nights drenched in stars and the clinging yellow fever." The colours are too close, too bright, and Barry feels his very identity slipping away.

Duncker herself is a product of Empire. She grew up in Jamaica, where her father's family had lived since the 18th century, and emigrated to England in the 1960s, shocked by the cold and the sea of white faces. "There's a curious thing about my childhood," she says, looking out over the verdant spring green. "When I think back to Jamaica where I was born, I remember this terribly, terribly happy childhood because it was free, you could live out- doors. But when I dream, I dream of Jamaica and it is horror." Barry cannot resolve his own secret horrors. He tires of wandering, retreats back to England and to Alice Jones.

But for Barry's creator, her nightmares have become the raw material for her latest fictional project, a series of Gothic short stories entitled Seven Tales of Sex and Death. After having serial nightmares following a move to a new house in Narbonne in southern France last year, she began watching late-night horror films and drew on their grisly themes. "I'm a great thriller reader but what's always missing is the motive which is never equal to the crime. I'm writing a psychological horror novel which is entirely about the Why?"

This extraordinary skill at delving beneath the surface is what sets Duncker apart. In James Miranda Barry, she delicately balances her hero/heroine's gains and losses, revelling in the unexpected and the delicious release that fantasy affords us. Barry is, after all, living out many women's dream.

Duncker, meanwhile, has launched back into anecdote. "There's an ad on the telly that I always rush to watch. There are all these people with signs and one is a marvellous commuter man with a board that says, `On the weekends I'm Mandy'." Her rich voice is flowing, her face creased with laughter, our dark thoughts are banished. "Mandy, if you're out there, I'm with you!" With Duncker's latest novel already tipped as a future feature film, and Hallucinating Foucault on the verge of a major movie deal, Mandy has got himself a powerful ally.

Julie Wheelwright is the author of `Amazons and Military Maids: women who dressed as men in pursuit of life, liberty and happiness' (Rivers Oram/ Pandora Press)

Patricia Duncker, a biography

Born in Jamaica in 1951, Patricia Duncker emigrated with her family to London in 1964. She was educated at Bedales School before reading English at Newnham College, Cambridge in 1970-73, followed by a doctorate in literature at St Hugh's College, Oxford. She is a lecturer at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, where she teaches writing and literature. Her first book, Sisters and Strangers, an introduction to contemporary feminist fiction, was published in 1992. Hallucinating Foucault (1996), her first novel, won the Dillons First Fiction Award in 1996 and the McKitterick Prize for the best first novel published that year. It won fulsome praise from the likes of Margaret Drabble and Louis de Bernieres who wrote that "Duncker should be made a DBE, elected to the Academie Francaise and have a statue erected in the main square of her home town." Her collection of short stories, Monsieur Shoushana's Lemon Trees, was published in 1997. She currently divides her time between south Wales, Narbonne in southwestern France, and London.