Pat Barker's talent for old wars does not adapt well to new ones. This failure to find power in the present stands as a core failure in British literary fictionby Julian Evans / August 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Book: Double Vision Author: Pat Barker Price: Hamish Hamilton, ?16.99
What kinds of people make interesting fictional characters? The question ought not to be necessary. What matters, as EM Forster noted in Aspects of the Novel, is not who they are but that they are convincing, that we feel the novelist has not “designed” them but created them. Yet reading the novels of Pat Barker, it is a question that repeatedly obtrudes. To answer it in a general way, you would have to say “People who think.” Even in the case of her most physically active characters-her infantrymen of the Ghost Road trilogy, or the sculptor and foreign correspondent of her latest novel-thinking, or a kind of intellectual dexterity, seems to be their most eligible quality.
She is not alone in this. Since CP Snow, Aldous Huxley and Iris Murdoch, “thinking” characters have been privileged in serious British fiction. In the last two decades, AS Byatt, Ian McEwan and David Lodge have institutionalised thought as the province of the universities. McEwan’s protagonist in Enduring Love is a science journalist whose partner is an academic; Lodge’s comic world unfolds almost entirely within the walls of the academy; in Possession, the only people who think are academics. The British “literary” novel of the last 20 years has become a way of subcontracting the business of thinking to invented characters with the proper credentials for it.
If this is true, then it is clear that we will want thinkers we can respect in the novels we read. Barker’s Ghost Road trilogy-Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road-offered both action and thought in a radical way, stirring first world war fact and fiction together so thoroughly that, as she suggested in her author’s note to Regeneration, “it may help the reader to know what is historical and what is not.” The backbone of The Ghost Road was the actual meeting that took place in 1917 between Siegfried Sassoon and the anthropologist and neurologist WHR Rivers, and Sassoon’s friendship with Wilfred Owen while he was under Rivers’s care. The second and third novels did not have quite the same urgency and authority, simultaneously prosaic and vivid, of that material. Barker’s bisexual hero Billy Prior, though promising in some way (comic? sexual? vernacular?), seemed an insufficiently profound part of the story, especially in the makeweight romance he conducted with his fianc?e Sarah…