Study Guide

Border Crossing

by Pat Barker

Border Crossing Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Border Crossing Pat Barker returns to the complex urban themes of her first two books, Union Street (1982) and Liza’s England (1986, originally titled The Century’s Daughter). In those novels, she told harrowing tales of the intersecting lives of lower-class women in decaying inner cities. Barker portrayed their struggles against poverty and abuse, and she focused on the love and community forged between generations of women. Border Crossing portrays a similar world through the lens of a middle-aged man, a psychologist whose specialty is working with troubled, and often violent, children and adolescents. In this novel, however, the emphasis is the one-on-one relationship between that psychologist, Tom Seymour, and a twenty-three-year-old man, Danny Peters, who murdered Lizzie Parks, an old woman, when he was a child of ten. Barker’s subject is at once contemporary and timely; for instance, during the summer of the publication of the first American edition of her novel, two young men in England, both eighteen, were released from custody after serving time for the murder of a child when they were both ten years old. Both adolescents were given new identities. In one sense Barker’s novel addresses questions relating to such controversial cases: What is the fate of child murderers once they are released into society? How can they gain insights into the sources that led to their past brutality? What will be required of them to open doors to healing and self-acceptance and to forge new lives for themselves in adulthood?

The character of Tom Seymour is reminiscent of Dr. William Rivers, the psychiatrist in Regeneration (1991), the first of Barker’s World War I trilogy (which continued with The Eye in the Door, 1993, and The Ghost Road, 1995). Both are sensitive and compassionate men who are placed in the difficult position of trying to help broken men heal themselves. Rivers treats soldiers with shell shock (now known as post-traumatic stress disorder). Seymour, the main character in Border Crossing, is faced with counseling a young man, Danny Peters, who seeks an understanding of his own truth about his identity and past actions. The narrative backbone of the novel is the set of interviews between Seymour and Danny Peters that gradually unravel the horrific traumas Danny experienced in his childhood.

Barker crafts a brilliant opening scene with a vivid description of locale and character: a middle-aged couple, their marriage failing, walk glumly along the banks of a gray and fetid river in a city in Northern England. Suddenly a young man—apparently attempting suicide—drops into the filthy water and the man dives in to rescue him. In the second chapter, the rescuer, Tom Seymour, learns that the young man he saved is Danny Peters. After Danny murdered Lizzie Parks, Tom evaluated Danny and determined that the boy knew the difference between life and death and thus could stand trial for that crime.

Barker demonstrates a sure sense of novelistic structure. She uses a parallel scene structure in the first half of the novel. Scenes of Tom interviewing the adult Danny alternate with scenes regarding Tom’s deteriorating relationship with his wife Lauren, scenes that focus on his work with other troubled children, and scenes that highlight his search for clues to Danny’s past. The actual murder scene is glimpsed indirectly early in the novel, in a chapter where Tom rereads his report, written thirteen years previously. However, Barker holds back Danny Peters’s recapitulation of the events of that day until almost the end of the novel. There is no question that the boy suffocated Lizzie Parks when she caught him alone in her house. The police report, however, indicated that the boy left the house after killing her, and then returned to the house and spent five hours alone with her corpse. What did he do in those five hours? Barker never reveals the details of the boy’s actions. She does record that when Tom saw the dead woman’s body in the morgue, he thought, “It seemed incredible that a child should have done that.” Barker chooses to focus her novel on the complexities faced by the young man in the present. Danny Peters wants to resolve his pain rather than remain stuck in the past and be haunted by the ghost of the old woman he killed. As to the horrific act he committed, Barker never renders the scene in any detail; instead, she leaves it to the reader’s imagination and thus magnifies its shock and horror.

Danny’s childhood provides the key to understanding his present context. More specifically, the myths Danny lived by blinded him from the harsh realities of his dysfunctional family. For example, Danny worshiped his father, who had been in the British Army for several years. In fact, his father had killed two combatants, one in Belfast and one in the Falklands. Danny was impressed with his father’s power, his penchant for telling war stories, and his devotion to male...

(The entire section is 2049 words.)