Study Guide

Pat Barker

Pat Barker Essay - Barker, Pat (Vol. 146)

Barker, Pat (Vol. 146)

Introduction

Pat Barker 1943-

(Full name Patricia Barker) English novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Barker's career through 1999. See also Pat Barker Criticisim (Volume 32) and Pat Barker Criticisim (Volume 94).

Barker is a highly acclaimed English novelist whose work is praised for its direct prose, insightful depictions of working-class life, and sensitive evocation of historical figures and events. Her earlier works focused primarily on the lives of working-class English women, earning Barker the label of a “feminist writer” from several critics. Barker's later novels eschewed the often reductive term of “woman novelist” by addressing themes and issues dealing with the front lines of battle in World War I. The works in Barker's Regeneration Trilogy and her subsequent novels have helped further refine and expand her thematic range.

Biographical Information

Barker was born to working-class parents in Thornaby-on-Tees, England, in 1943. She attended the London School of Economics and Political Science, earning a B.S. degree in 1965. She taught for several years while writing unpublished works about the middle-class environment that her education, profession, and marriage had provided her. After attending a writing class taught by English novelist and short story writer Angela Carter, Barker was inspired and encouraged to write about the milieu in which she was raised. Barker has won several literary awards, including the Booker Prize for her novel The Ghost Road (1995).

Major Works

Barker's early novels center on the lives of working-class women in England, a segment of the population often ignored by male writers. Union Street (1982) traces the lives of seven female characters who range in age from young girlhood to the elderly. The book examines the individual hardships they face living in a factory community. Blow Your House Down (1984) also centers on the collective experience of women, focusing on several prostitutes as they struggle against economic deprivation and violence. The Century's Daughter (1986) relates the life story of Liza Jarrett Wright in a portrayal of the difficult living conditions in northeast England from the turn of the twentieth century through the 1980s. Barker's Regeneration Trilogy explores the social and psychological forces behind World War I, as well as dealing with issues related to the then-rigid English class system. Regeneration (1991) focuses on the relationship between two historical figures—Siegfried Sassoon, poet, war hero, and eventual pacifist, and Dr. William Rivers, an anthropologist, neurologist, and Sassoon's psychologist, who became famous for his work on the treatment of the wartime medical condition known as “shell shock.” The novel studies the internal conflict that Rivers experiences when he is forced to return patients to the front lines who have moral objections to war. In The Eye in the Door (1993), Dr. Rivers treats Major Billy Prior, who is struggling to expose enemies of the state within the Ministry of Munitions. Prior inadvertently causes the arrest of a childhood friend by exposing his homosexuality. This act fills Prior with feelings of hypocrisy, knowing that he is bisexual himself. Major Prior returns to combat in The Ghost Road, the concluding volume of the trilogy. The narrative jumps between Dr. Rivers's therapeutic work and his musings on his past experiences as an anthropologist among Melanesian head-hunters in the South Pacific, and Major Prior's life on the front lines of battle. These events take place as both the war and the novel move toward their conclusion at the battle at Sambre-Oise Canal in 1918. Another World (1999) focuses on two families and the internal strife that exists in each. Nick and Fran are recently married divorcees who each have a child from their previous marriages. Nick is neglecting his responsibilities at home because he is trying to support his dying grandfather, Geordie, who reminisces about World War I and the loss of his brother in the trenches. During renovation of their house, Nick and Fran discover a family portrait of the Fanshawes, previous owners of the house who also encountered family tragedies including bitter sibling rivalries and murder. The plot moves between Nick and Fran's domestic turmoils, the sordid history of the Fanshawes, and Geordie's traumatic remembrances of the war. Border Crossing (2001) explores the relationship between Danny, a troubled ex-convict who is released from prison for a murder he committed at age ten, and Tom, the therapist who testified at Danny's trial that the boy was cognizant of his actions. The two coincidentally meet and Tom becomes Danny's therapist.

Critical Reception

Although lauded for her portrayal of working-class women in her early novels, Barker has disdained being labeled a “feminist” writer. Her subsequent work earned her praise for her ability to describe the human condition and set forth her strong convictions on a variety of issues ranging from class conditions in England to the unjust nature of trench warfare. Gail Caldwell stated, “Defying most of the unspoken conventions of literary chic, the British novelist Pat Barker writes old-fashioned modernist novels full of lean prose and courageous convictions.” A majority of reviewers agree that Barker's Regeneration Trilogy is her most accomplished work to date. Critics have commended Barker's ability to represent the male psyche, particularly during her descriptions of World War I soldiers' most intimate and emotional experiences. Critics have also praised Barker's ability to tell stories from multiple perspectives. Barker's extended research and her blending of historical fact with fiction have won the acclaim of several reviewers. However, Lavinia Greenlaw disagreed, stating, “The attempt to animate these personalities is hampered by the reader's prior knowledge and preconceptions, while passing allusions to a renowned pacifist or psychotic also read, irritatingly, as shorthand for what a writer should try more originally to evoke.” Some critics have complained that Barker over-explains in her Regeneration Trilogy and does not trust her readers to draw their own conclusions. A few critics found the section focusing on Dr. Rivers’s time in Melanesia in The Ghost Road unnecessary and not as strong as the central narrative. Although Barker was commended for the versatility in her later novels, the books met with a lukewarm overall response. Stylistically, Barker has been consistently praised throughout her career for the spareness of her prose, her realism, and her lack of sentimentality. Brooke Allen asserts “Pat Barker is capable of getting across a powerful message with the absolute minimum of rhetoric, one of the rarest gifts a writer can be blessed with.”

Principal Works

Union Street (novel) 1982

Blow Your House Down (novel) 1984

The Century's Daughter (novel) 1986

The Man Who Wasn't There (novel) 1989

*Regeneration (novel) 1991

*The Eye in the Door (novel) 1993

*The Ghost Road (novel) 1995

The Regeneration Trilogy (three-novel series) 1996

Another World (novel) 1999

Border Crossing (novel) 2001

*These novels constitute “The Regeneration Trilogy,” focusing on World War I.

Criticism

Judy Cooke (review date 10 September 1993)

SOURCE: A review of The Eye in the Door, in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 6, No. 269, September 10, 1993, pp. 40-1.

[In the following review, Cooke lauds Barker's The Eye in the Door as an even stronger novel than Regeneration.]

Pat Barker's sequel to her much-praised Regeneration [titled The Eye in the Door,] is shockingly good: as powerful an indictment of the first world war as the earlier novel, and further reaching in its analysis of the social and psychological forces that created and sustained the catastrophe.

The fact that real people—Siegfried Sassoon, the psychologist William Rivers—are introduced alongside...

(The entire section is 481 words.)

Eva Hoffman (essay date 26 November 1995)

SOURCE: “The Super Bowl of Fiction,” in New York Times Book Review, November 26, 1995, p. 35.

[In the following essay, Hoffman describes the scene at the 1995 Booker Prize award ceremony at which Barker's The Ghost Road wins.]

On the evening of Nov. 7, the keeper of the Guild-hall, the magnificent Gothic building where the Booker Prize ceremonies are taking place, is mostly worried about security. In acknowledgment of Salman Rushdie's presence, he nervously confesses, 16 armed guards have been hired; and it must be said that the small phalanx of alert-looking men carrying walkie-talkies adds an element of extraliterary suspense to the atmosphere. Others in...

(The entire section is 1602 words.)

Gail Caldwell (review date 3 December 1995)

SOURCE: A review of The Ghost Road, in Boston Globe, December 3, 1995, p. 72.

[In the following review, Caldwell complains that the Melanesian section of Barker's The Ghost Road is not as compelling as the rest of the novel.]

Defying most of the unspoken conventions of literary chic, the British novelist Pat Barker writes old-fashioned modernist novels full of lean prose and courageous convictions. She knows, like poets and generals, that the most hideous truths about civilization are best captured with a direct hit. Her last three novels—Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and now The Ghost Road—compose a trilogy set in England...

(The entire section is 1212 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 18 December 1995)

SOURCE: “The Great War and All Its Scars,” in Wall Street Journal, Vol. CLXXVI, No. 118, December 18, 1995.

[In the following review, Rubin cites the strengths and weaknesses of Barker's writing in The Ghost Road.]

History is full of lessons; the problem lies in recognizing which past precepts best apply to present circumstances. If the Vietnam War provided an argument for isolationists and World War II inspiration for interventionists, then World War I, begun in a burst of military overconfidence, managed to transform many patriotic soldiers into impassioned pacifists.

The Great War, as it was called, produced a significant body of antiwar...

(The entire section is 837 words.)

Claudia Roth Pierpont (review date 31 December 1995)

SOURCE: “Shell Shock,” in New York Times Book Review, December 31, 1995, p. 5.

[In the following review, Pierpont discusses Barker's ability to write from the perspective of men in The Ghost Road and her decision to take on the subject of war.]

It was not until 1914 that words became inadequate to describe the horrors of war, “Indescribable horror”; the very notion, now so worn with use, in fact marked a sharp reversal of our most enduring literary impulse, from the Iliad and Moses' song over the drowned Egyptian cavalry through to Tolstoy. By the second year of the Great War, amid unprecedented carnage and the sense that no one could explain...

(The entire section is 1666 words.)

Lavinia Greenlaw (review date 29 April 1996)

SOURCE: A review of The Ghost Road, in New Republic, Vol. 214, No. 18, April 29, 1996, pp. 38-9.

[In the following review, Greenlaw asserts that Barker's skill with style and characterization is at its height in The Ghost Road.]

The authenticity of history is useful to writers of fiction. It can be challenged or invoked; and its scale can be adjusted to amplify or to diminish human drama, either way providing props, backdrops and special effects at comparatively little imaginative cost. The dangers are obvious: fiction is authenticated by its evidence of research—details of the real place, people, technology. Anecdotes and arcane practices impress us primarily...

(The entire section is 2735 words.)

Tony Smith (review date 4 May 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Regeneration, in British Medical Journal, Vol. 312, No. 7039, May 4, 1996, pp. 1171-72.

[In the following review, Smith lauds Barker's portrayal of World War I in her Regeneration Trilogy.]

Only a handful of men survive who fought in the first world war, but it retains its fascination for new generations; in no war before or since were so many young men conscripted to die. Pat Barker's three books [Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road] are fiction with some historical characters, including the neurologist W. H. R. Rivers and the war poets Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Owen. The books...

(The entire section is 521 words.)

Robert Coles (review date 13 September 1997)

SOURCE: “Secular Days, Sacred Moments,” in America, Vol. 177, No. 678, September 13, 1997, p. 8.

[In the following review, Coles asserts that the story of character Dr. Rivers is the most compelling element of Barker's Regeneration.]

In a previous column I made mention of my experiences as an Air Force psychiatrist—the different ways we were expected to respond to our fellow officers, as opposed to the ordinary men and women who hadn't such high rank to their credit. Again and again some of us doctors, in the military for only two years, were reminded that we had to accommodate our notion of what ought to be the requirements of a large organization with its own...

(The entire section is 1011 words.)

Greg Harris (essay date Summer 1998)

SOURCE: “Compulsory Masculinity, Britain, and the Great War: The Literary-Historical Work of Pat Barker,” in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 39, No. 4, Summer, 1998, pp. 290-305.

[In the following essay, Harris discusses the constraints placed on masculinity during World War I and analyzes how Barker uses the work of W. H. R. Rivers to explore gender roles and psychological treatment during the war in her Regeneration Trilogy.]

Pat Barker's trilogy about World War I—Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993), and The Ghost Road (1995)—intricately interweaves fact and fiction, deriving fictive scenarios from...

(The entire section is 7145 words.)

Anne Whitehead (essay date Fall 1998)

SOURCE: “Open to Suggestion: Hypnosis and History in Pat Barker's Regeneration,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 44, No. 3, Fall, 1998, pp. 674-94.

[In the following essay, Whitehead explores Barker's attempt to recover the past in her Regeneration Trilogy and how psychiatrists attempt to help soldiers recover their pasts during therapy.]

“We could try hypnosis now, if you liked.”

“Now?”

“Yes, why not? It's the time we're least likely to be interrupted.”

...

(The entire section is 7880 words.)

John Kirk (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Recovered Perspectives: Gender, Class, and Memory in Pat Barker's Writing,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XL, No. 4, 1999, pp. 603-26.

[In the following essay, Kirk describes how Barker empowers working-class women with a voice in her novels Union Street, Blow Your House Down, and The Century's Daughter.]

This essay examines the writing of the English novelist Pat Barker, in particular three novels published in the 1980s: Union Street (1982), Blow Your House Down (1984), and The Century's Daughter (1986). These three texts provide examples of an often returned to thematic emphasis in Barker's writing around issues...

(The entire section is 8978 words.)

Michael Frank (review date 6 June 1999)

SOURCE: “The Haunting,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 6, 1999, p. 3.

[In the following review, Frank praises Barker's Another World for its recollection of the past, but asserts that the book would have been stronger with three narrative threads instead of two.]

The containers of memory are emptying. For those of us born at the tail end of the baby boom, it is impossible not to be conscious of the fact that the eyeballs that looked on the events of World War II are slowly clouding with age. Our fathers, our uncles, their friends, soldiers and sailors, survivors of the Holocaust, all before too many years will no longer be among us to communicate...

(The entire section is 1925 words.)

Michael Thorpe (essay date October 1999)

SOURCE: “The Walking Wounded,” in World and I, Vol. 14, No. 10, October, 1999, p. 258.

[Thorpe is the author of Siegfried Sassoon: A Critical Study. In the following essay, he presents an overview of Barker's major works.]

If any contemporary English novelist has made redundant that male reviewer's discriminatory phrase woman novelist, it is Pat Barker. Although she is usually described as a feminist—a term she doesn't reject—her feminism is not the exclusive kind that demarcates strictly between male and female fictional material. A narrow feminism would debar the male novelist from representing a female consciousness or viewpoint, an attitude whose...

(The entire section is 3382 words.)