Real Lives, Real History

Literature is not what we tend to think of when considering “reality.” Nonfiction has the facts, right? Good literature, though, can convey much more than a story, an article, or a work of history. It carries with it a truth that helps the reader understand more.

History – and understanding – are powerful themes in Pat Barker’s 1986 novel, The Century’s Daughter. It’s the third novel Barker published and it builds off the close study of working class women in northern England from her two previous works, Union Street and Blow Your House Down. The key characters here are Liza Jarrett Wright, who was born at the start of the century, and Stephen, a young social worker. The novel’s protagonist is the power of poverty, war and hardship – along with violence and the lack of love – and its impact on human lives. Women’s lives take center stage. This is a novel of blood, phlegm, constraints and tears.

Liza’s lot in life was hard, but not without impact or meaning. Her parents never loved her and she married poorly because of an unplanned pregnancy. The world wars killed many of those important to her, altering lives and living circumstances. She struggled for self and family, and through it all maintained hope and dignity. Barker never sentimentalizes. Even with some tenderness and empathy, there is little soft in Liza’s story.

Stephen, who is charged with moving Liza from her soon to be demolished home, faces a different set of challenges. He’s estranged from his family. He is gay, uncomfortable with himself and his choices. Stephen’s father dies of cancer, and it is in his death that Stephen gains a greater sense of humanity and need. Stephen and Liza become friends and through their interactions, thoughts and lives, we gain a broader sense of themselves, their histories, and their communities. Stephen at times, though, seems more of a lens than a fully realized person.

It’s neither easy nor pretty. Barker makes it all compelling, though. Her prose is unfailingly sharp and clear. Her insights are deftly delivered. It is compassionate and hard. Century’s Daughter is a haunting novel.

David Potash

Pat Barker Again

Working one’s way through Pat Barker’s novels is not work at all. But it also is neither easy nor comforting. Barker is an extraordinarily perceptive writer and the precision of her prose compels attention. She is beyond thoughtful; her attention is acute. I have come to realize that there is a clinical quality to her writing that is captivating – has me reading more and more – and also just a little bit scary. It is imposing.

Barker’s first big breakout novel was Union Street, a book that I had heard referenced years ago in discussions about “women’s literature.” While it features women, the categorization is inelegant at best. Union Street is much more, even with a relatively simple structure: seven interrelated chapters, each focusing on a different female character, all of whom live on the same street in a northern English city in the 1970s. The women are working class, poor, and range in age from early adolescence to aged and dying. The immediacy of their lives, struggles and circumstances impels the narrative, with the impositions on their lives dominating thoughts and actions. The plot does not move from conflict to resolution; the characters’ lives do not move from conflict to resolution. That’s also how people lead their lives, especially those of limited means. Life is often ongoing struggle.

Throughout, Barker gives the characters voice and agency, even if their language is rough and their agency severely constrained. It is powerful prose, carrying the reader into a world far removed from romance. It is also neither didactic or judgmental It is easy to see why the book, which came out in the early 1980s, generated so much attention. It remains relevant, an eye-opening read.

Published decades later, Barker’s Border Crossing is a frightening novel about the evil that children can do. Is it possible to become “good”? Does time served make a difference? And what might our responsibilities be to those who did something awful as a child? It is high gothic literature.

Set against the backdrop of a dissolving marriage, Tom and Lauren live in north of England. Trying for a child, they’ve grown farther apart or, perhaps, realized that they were never all that close. While on a walk, Tom rescues a young man who attempts suicide. The young man turns out to be a figure in Tom’s past. He is Danny, recently released from prison, who murdered an old woman as a child a decade earlier. Tom is a counselor and had testified about Danny. Tom and Danny start sessions, probing into issues of family, guilt, crime and identity.

Barker’s exploration of the characters is clinical. The dialogue is masterfully presented. In elegant prose, she lays bare the characters innermost feelings without reduction. Nor is the reader enlightened through gimmicks or third-person narration. Instead, the characters come across as complicated, high-functioning, and damaged people. Reading tells us much about them and about Barker, who is unremitting in her push for deeper understanding and truth. It’s high literature and a bit of a thriller, with uncomfortable tension throughout. Border Crossing isn’t diverting – it’s engrossing.

David Potash

Pat Barker is a Genius

No ifs, ands or buts about it – Pat Barker is one of the best novelists around. A bit more than a decade ago I read her Regeneration trilogy, three novels taking place in World War I. It was gripping, amazing, and memorable. They gave me goosebumps. The books were well-read, well-reviewed, and received multiple awards. The last novel in the three, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize.

I don’t really know why, but I went for years without reading anything else by her. Barker kept writing, gathering up awards and putting out novels. When I came across a recent review praising yet another novel by her, I decided that it was high time to reacquaint myself with Barker. After a few more reads, my estimation of her has increased.

Barker wrote Double Vision in 2003. It’s a tightly written and yet wandering story with a hole at its middle: a character who was killed in the Middle East. His grieving wife and friend reconnect. No gimmicks in the plot. Instead, events unwind methodically as characters work to make sense of loss, life and meaning. There’s crime, passion, and a gothic feel to it – but without undue ornamentation.

In 2015 she published Noonday, the third novel in a trilogy that also stands on its own. It’s very good – no surprises there – and it deals in a very mature way with trauma, memory, and how people navigate through “history.” Again, at the center of the novel are few well developed characters who interact with each other, trying to figure out relationships, commitment and and meaning. Set during the WWII Blitz, violence defines the environment.

Both novels are sure of themselves and where they are going. Reading them provoked me into thinking through why Barker is so good, why her writing is so powerful. One answer rests on her intelligence. Her observations, her plotting, her language – it’s impossible to read Barker and not be aware that someone incredibly smart and talented has put it together. Even with her relatively straightforward language, I am aware of great wisdom, coupled with curiosity, moving the story along.

Barker shuns the unnecessary . Sentences and paragraphs, ideas and story, are clear and unencumbered. Her words are precise. She does not dumb things down, either, when parsing. It was good to reach for a dictionary when I came across “lordotic.” It’s the curve above your butt and in the paragraph, it fit perfectly.

Themes in Barker’s books are often unsettling. She writes about violence, trauma, and how people manage through it. She is generous with her characters while unsparing in her insights. I feel as though I have learned when I read her – though I never get the sense that she is didactic. There is little frivolity in her novels.

Bottom line – Barker’s writing is mature. It is literature, not fiction, from a grown up for grown ups. And when I’m ready for that, and not distraction, it makes for a very welcome read.

Thank you, Pat Barker, and please keep the prose coming.

David Potash