- Justine Stoddard
Novelist Pat Barker was born in Thornaby-on-Tees in Yorkshire, England, on 8 May 1943.
She was educated at the London School of Economics, where she read International History, and at Durham University. She taught History and Politics until 1982. She began to write in her mid-twenties and was encouraged to pursue her career as a writer by the novelist Angela Carter. Her early novels dealt with the harsh lives of working-class women living in the north of England. Her first book, Union Street (1982) won the Fawcett Society Book Prize, while her second, Blow Your House Down (1984), was adapted for the stage by Sarah Daniels in 1994. The Century's Daughter (re-published as Liza's England in 1996) was published in 1986, followed by The Man Who Wasn't There in 1989.
In 1983 she was named as one of the 20 'Best Young British Novelists' in a promotion run by the Book Marketing Council and Granta magazine. Her trilogy of novels about the First World War, which began with Regeneration in 1991, was partly inspired by her grandfather's experiences fighting in the trenches in France. Regeneration was made into a film in 1997 starring Jonathan Pryce and James Wilby. The Eye in the Door (1993), the second novel in the trilogy, won the Guardian Fiction Prize, and The Ghost Road (1995), the final novel in the series, won the Booker Prize for Fiction. Another World (1998), although set in contemporary Newcastle, is overshadowed by the memories of an old man who fought in the First World War.
Her novel Border Crossing (2001) describes the relationship between a child psychologist and a young man convicted of murder 13 years earlier. Double Vision (2003) concerns the atrocity of war and two men who are caught up in its shadow.
Pat Barker was awarded a CBE in 2000. Her latest novels are Life Class (2007), Toby's Room (2012), returning to the First World War, Noonday (2015) and The Silence of the Girls (2018).
Pat Barker's work never makes comfortable reading, for she chooses to explore, with an unflinching eye, subjects such as prostitution, homosexuality, child rape, incest, mental illness, pacifism, war, and murder by minors.
Many readers come to Barker's work through her best-known books, the Regeneration Trilogy (1991-1995), the third book of which won the Booker Prize in 1995. There is no doubt that the Regeneration Trilogy, with its attention to historical detail and skilful blending of factual and fictional characters, is her most subtle and satisfying work. These novels have often been criticised as horrific, brutal, even brutish, yet only by getting close to the base, shocking, palpable detail of the First World War and the mental, as well as physical, distress caused by close proximity to danger and death, can we better understand it. If you delve into Barker's earlier writing with novels such as Blow Your House Down (1984) and Union Street (1982), you find many of the characteristics for which she was criticised in the Regeneration novels coming out, not in the heightened emotional atmosphere of war, but in more everyday surroundings and, because of this, these novels seem even more raw and honest.
In two of her works after the Regeneration Trilogy - Life Class (2007) and Toby’s Room (2012) – Barker returns to the First World War for her subject matter. In Regeneration she skilfully wove the true-life story of Siegfried Sassoon into her fiction and she does the same in Life Class and Toby’s Room. The main characters, three artists at the Slade School of Art in London, Elinor, Paul and Kit, are loosely based on real-life characters, respectively the artists Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler and C.R.W. Nevinson. They are all fascinating personalities in their own right, who had strong connections with major British intellectuals, including the Bloomsbury Group, over the post-war years. In the second of the two novels she describes in admirably researched detail life within a hospital for servicemen with severe facial injuries where Elinor is commissioned to draw the faces of mutilated patients before, during and after surgery. Whilst paying attention to the social divisions, gender issues, sexual and professional rivalry within the group of students, Barker continues to explore the complexities of the war and its psychological as well as physical effects on individuals and society. How do civilians react to Germans living in Britain during the war? By ostracising them. How do they react to a straightforward war wound? By asking the injured person if he has been “over there” and buying him a drink if he answers positively. How do people react to severely facially disfigured servicemen? By ignoring them, wincing or running from the room – only a small child has the conviction to run up to her mutilated father to give him a kiss. Such behaviours, brutally basic though totally understandable, do not make comfortable reading: when we ask ourselves how we would react, we fear the answer.
In Double Vision (2003) she attempts to describe the effects of modern war on an individual, war reporter Stephen Sharkey, who has decided to take time off in his native Britain after his friend is killed by a sniper in Afghanistan. Although Double Vision contains a number of shocking passages - in particular the recurring image of a young woman who has been raped and killed in Sarajevo - it is somehow a more delicate novel (if this is possible for such a subject), firstly perhaps because as Barker herself remarks, modern warfare is not so much basic face to face combat as “a kind of son et lumière display, the first where the bombardment of enemy forces acquired the bloodless precision of a video game… what was new… was the combination of censorship with massive, one-sided aerial bombardment so that allied casualties were minimal or non-existent… these were wars designed to ensure that fear and pain never came home”. Another reason it might be seen as more delicate is that, more than in her other novels, the story’s ending suggests the possibility of redemption through love and the recognition of one's roots. Whenever you read Barker, you get a strong feeling of unease. One of the reasons for this is that whereas many writers try to make excuses for negative moral behaviour - children turn to violence or murder because they were themselves abused, women fall into prostitution to alleviate poverty - Barker does not let us off the hook so easily. We long to hear of extenuating circumstances that explain what society considers anti-social behaviour, for example that Ian, the child who murders an old lady in Border Crossing (2001), was perhaps sexually abused as a child, but Barker tells us this was not in fact so. In Blow Your House Down, Barker shows how poorly educated women can slip into prostitution to escape poverty because it is an easier option than the harshness of gutting chickens in a factory, but she also explains how, despite the shame and humiliation, once a woman turns to prostitution, the money is easy and she doesn't really want to get out. Barker will not let us take things at face value. Life and people, she lets us know, are far more complicated than we have been taught to think: Siegfried Sassoon in Regeneration for example is a pacifist but also a dedicated and passionate soldier, and a great leader of men. The neurologist Dr. Rivers, who seems an intelligent, sensitive, one might even say 'moral' person, protests little despite his obvious unease when he sits in on a nightmare therapy session with his colleague Dr. Yealland. The main character in Double Vision, Stephen, has likable qualities, but he is not adverse to having a fling with his brother’s baby sitter, a woman who is little more than a minor, and, whilst sexually and psychologically using her, is careful not to get too involved: “Are your intentions honourable?” the girl’s father’s eyes seem to ask Stephen. “No, not honourable, but, at least, I hope, kind,” replies Stephen to himself.
When we read a novel, we usually look for, and receive, a character with whom we can identify, a person who, even though he may be ordinary, we can call the hero, a person perhaps who learns or grows morally through the novel. With Barker it is very difficult to find a main character to latch on to and even to like. In the Regeneration trilogy we try to do it with Dr Rivers. He seems kind and sensible, but at the same time he is (to many modern eyes at least) morally weak, as he puts duty to country first and sends patients back to the front and to almost certain death despite moral scruples that the war might be wrong. We search for a strong lead from Sassoon, but again are confused when the noble pacifist agrees to go back to fight because his men need him. Kate, the wife of Stephen’s recently deceased workmate in Double Vision seems a strong, likeable character and we are keen to know more about her, hoping perhaps that she will fall in love with Stephen and save him. But, yet again, Barker steers away from the obvious and chooses a more complex relationship for Stephen. As Barker herself points out when describing one of her characters: “Alec had always thought of himself as a good man… that made him sound smug and horrible, which he wasn’t, but he did tend to assume that in the great war of good and evil he’d always be on the right side, whereas Kate couldn’t help thinking real life starts when you admit the other possibility.” Prior, from Regeneration, with his violent father and fastidious mother and his search for human warmth in both heterosexual and homosexual affairs is, alas, an unlikeable person. Iris, the fifteen stone Middlesbrough housewife with the heart of gold and a love of bairns appeals to the reader, yet she beats up her husband and refuses for a time to have her unmarried pregnant daughter in the house. Even the plucky child psychologist in Border Crossings who might be a likely hero candidate has impotency problems and is unable to talk to his wife. Elinor, too, the female protagonist in Life Class and Toby’s Room has attractive characteristics; she seems intelligent, independent and hard-working but she proves to be self-centred, morally incoherent and sexually ambiguous. The local vicar in Double Vision, a character whose occupation would traditionally make him seem morally good, for example, cannot control his teenage daughter, is seduced by the local spinster and is not as honest as he might be about the crimes committed by one of his protégé, hence putting others at risk. Barker's characters are far more complex and human than in the fiction of many other authors
Despite these human character weaknesses, some of Barker’s characters are capable of supremely selfless acts of courage or morality. Toby, one of the main characters in Toby’s Room sacrifices himself on the battlefield rather than have his sexual behaviour made public and his family humiliated. Stephen in Double Vision, despite a tendency for self-indulgence and self-protection, does not think twice about rushing unarmed into a house where his girlfriend is being beaten up by a burglar. Is he a hero or is it just the kind of reckless streak one imagines must be necessary in a war correspondent that compels him? Only Barker can tantalisingly suggest this question without openly addressing it.
Dialogue, tone of voice and the fact that the way a person speaks often belies the way he acts also help to create an aura of menace. When we first hear Ian, the child murderer in Border Crossing, talking, we are struck by how articulate he is and how well-educated he sounds despite having been in prison for many years. Some of the most violent characters speak with sibilant voices. We are shocked by the man in Blow Your House Down who likes prostitutes to urinate on his face: "He's very nice you know... He doesn't say 'piss'... He says 'wee-wee'." Humour exists in Barker's books, but it is almost always of the blackest kind - the prostitute who muses when a client open his flies and lets loose a cloud of talc that she is "more likely to get silicosis than VD" or the fanatical Theosophist in Regeneration who "spoke throughout in mock medieval English - lots of 'Yea verilys' and 'forsooths' - as if his brief exposure to French horrors had frightened him into a sort of terminal facetiousness."
The depiction of the psychology of the individuals, sometimes by what they do, often in contrast to what they say or how they act, is fundamental in Barker’s work. Many of her books contain descriptions of dreams or of people under anaesthetic, morphine or other drugs and she often makes her characters drink too much so as to show them in a rawer, more primitive, form. Often other characters’ observations when characters are medicated or drunk are as important as that person’s behaviour itself. Yet physicality plays an important part in the novels, too. In her earlier works, Barker gives quite detailed descriptions of dilapidated living conditions, of the viaduct in which the prostitutes work, the park where the child meets her molester. In her later works her physical descriptions are more condensed and maturely handled, she describes a scene with a few broad brushstrokes, then illuminates it with an acute physical detail. A chapter about a Red Cross hospital in Life Class opens with a magnificently simple yet highly evocative description: “Everything stinks: creosote, bleach, disinfectant, soil, blood, gangrene.”
There are always strong references to touch, and particularly to smell. The boy who finds the body of a dead woman is searching for material on a rubbish dump when his "fingers encounter something that has the consistency of soft cheese", characters who are lying or about to do evil things often give forth a sweet, sickly smell of sweat. As often with Barker, things are turned around, so that smells usually considered attractive take on negative connotations - the murderer in Blow Your House Down for example sucks on violet-scented sweets because his teeth are rotting, in Regeneration we hear of how the patients cannot bear sweet smells like the scent of lime trees because they remind them of decaying flesh. Though Barker's books are not for the weak-hearted, there is the chance that we may learn from them not only more about how the human psyche reacts under pressure, but also more about ourselves and other human beings. In the case of the Regeneration Trilogy, perhaps by facing up to the extremes of man's inhumanity to man and its aftermath we might better understand it and, just as importantly, never forget it, so that it stands as an example for humans to learn from. As Barker said, on receiving the Booker Prize in 1995: "The Somme is like the Holocaust. It revealed things about mankind that we cannot come to terms with and cannot forget. It can never become the past."
Amanda Thursfield, 2013