(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Like Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992), Pat Barker’sAnother World demonstrates that the memory of the mind can survive the depletion of the body. Both novels invalidate any notion of the past as remote. In The English Patient, a World War II combat pilot, whose body is ravaged in a fiery crash but whose mind remains intact by the charity of a nurse he can only touch and not see, lives long enough to piece together the fragments of a tragic love. In Another World, a dying 101-year-old survivor of World War I links three generations of his northern English family by proving that time is more than a linear rolling stream but “something altogether more viscous and unpredictable, like blood . . . coagulat[ing] around terrible events . . . stop[ping] the flow.”

The pivotal character in Another World is a centenarian war veteran named Geordie, whose teeming memories of the trenches symbolize the astonishing ways cataclysmic events change not only history but also the geography of individual minds. The old soldier’s grandson Nick best empathizes with Geordie’s having to live to the heartbeat of memory, “the upside-down time of the trenches, funk holes by day, working parties and patrols at night.” By witnessing daily his grandfather’s dying, Nick is better able to endure his own domestic wars.

Nick’s second wife, Fran, is carrying their second baby, an especially heavy burden because she also has their two-year-old son Jasper to look after as well as her son Gareth and Nick’s daughter Miranda, both the product of previous marriages. In the opening chapter, Nick is bound for the train station in Newcastle, England, to pick up Miranda. Cursing a traffic jam caused by a gang of toughs snarled around “two little buggers” having a fight, Nick berates them from his car window. He will be late to pick up Miranda, who has become his and Fran’s charge while Miranda’s mother, his first wife, languishes in a mental hospital.

It is a bad time all around for the family. They have just moved into a large Victorian house in a Newcastle suburb. Everything is in chaos, perhaps best reflected by the seriously disturbed Gareth, a sadist who takes particular zest in bullying younger kids. Inevitably, Gareth will menace his two-year-old stepbrother, Jasper. Barker prepares the reader for the boy’s ultimate lashing-out with a brief scene in which a swarm of older girls attack Gareth, who is unsure of the way to his new school. The girls pull down his pants, yelling “Show us what you’ve got,” and in the act reveal not only what they seek but also his soiled shorts. “Skid marks! Skid marks!’ they shout after him, as he runs crying down the alley. . . .”

The taunting of Gareth portends compensatory violence. In a twenty-page chapter that is at once as self-contained as a well- crafted short story and obligatory in this novel as evidence of the trauma at the heart of life, Barker positions Gareth on a cliff during a family outing. Trying to show off for Miranda, whom he has spotted nearby, he hurls stones onto the beach below. Jasper, who is playing unattended in the sand, becomes a payback target for the young sadist whose favorite plaything is Sniper, a grisly mechanical predator. Hearing his half brother’s cries, Gareth tries to flee as he had done the day before with his female tormentors. He quickly assumes the worst, thinking Miranda has seen, or at least guessed, what happened.

Barker’s roving eye conveys the cliff-side tableau as an innocence about to be corrupted. In panning downward and back up, to and from the interlocking perspectives of the five participants, Barker skillfully dissolves the action from each perspective, including Jasper’s. In an interview with Alida Becker of the The New York Times, Barker addressed the symbolic efficacy of the...

(The entire section is 1584 words.)