I suspect that, like most Pat Barker readers, my previous knowledge of her work is restricted to her Booker-winning Regeneration Trilogy. Her latest release, Life Class, returns to that WWI setting and its arrival is eagerly anticipated in this household. I suspect the delayed arrival is due to this summer’ss postal dispute. In the meantime I unearthed a copy of Barker’s previous release, Double Vision, which has languished in the TBR mountain, for the 4 years since its publication!
While this novel has a contemporary setting in rural Britain, conflict, violence and its aftermath still permeate the pages. Not the censored and sanitized images we see on the six o’clock news either. For Stephen Sharkey, retired foreign correspondent, has retreated to the countryside to write a book based on the photographs of, Ben Frobisher, shot by a sniper in Afghanistan. Steven’s flashbacks and the memories triggered by Ben’s photographs provide short, sharp and extremely focused insights into individual tragedies from conflict around the world: Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, New York.
Yet this is no philosophical treatise on the horrors of war. Barker’s concern is centred on whether individuals touched by war and other random acts of violence can recover. So the double-threaded narrative follows Stephen (Ben’;s friend) and Kate (Ben’s wife) as they attempt to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. Both immerse themselves in work ; Stephen, his book, Kate, her sculpture. Kate cannot let go of her husband until her work is complete but a serious car accident puts the project in jeopardy. Stephen believes himself frozen emotionally and it takes another random act of violence for him to understand that he has actually moved on. Life goes on in its unpredictable stream and this is, what I think, Barker is attempting to convey.
Unfortunately it’s all rather bland (including Stephen’s sexual encounters with a girl 25 years younger than himself) and I think Barker realised it. Hence the injection of a dangerous stranger with a hidden past. As the mentality of this individual is revealed, through the fiction he writes, the novel appears to mutate into psychological thriller. Yet the tension quickly dissipates as Barker veers off in a different direction half-way through the novel. There’s other content , carefully introduced, which doesn’t really get woven into the text as it should. Barker is always too quick to move onto the next issue: Milosevic’s war crimes trial in the Hague, the ethics of using human embryos for medical research. The novel rambles with no clear direction and even the ending is ambiguous. Messy like life, I suppose but messiness doesn’t make a satisfactory framework in a novel.
There are some neat touches. There are echoes of the war-torn countries in the rural landscape of Britain. For the scars from the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001 are still visible and the funeral pyres echo the mass graves found in Bosnia. There is foreshadowing aplenty as when Stephen contemplates the Spanish painter Goya. He thinks “about his love of visiting circuses, fiestas, fairs, freak shows, street markets, acrobatic displays, lunatic asylums, bear fights, public executions , any spectacle strong enough to still the shouting of the demons in his ears. Portrait of a man who’d come through”. As indeed is Barker’s portrait of Stephen Sharkey.