Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1584
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 cliff-side incident: “I tried to make much of the fact that Gareth sees the child from above. From up there on the cliff, what he sees has some of the impersonality of video games. From there, his brother looks like a piglet, not a child. It’s easy to dehumanize someone at that point.”
Even Geordie, whose continuance brings to this novel an endurance of spirit it could not otherwise claim, is dehumanized by Nick in the sheer tedium of waiting. “[Nick] tries to whip his tired brain into feeling the seriousness of the events, the preciousness of the last few grains of sand, but his thoughts run into cliché. . . . The appropriate emotions dry up.”
Again, as in The English Patient, the reader is never allowed to forget the skull beneath the skin. As Barry Unsworth, another British novelist of Barker’s generation, puts it: “We are spared none of the blood and vomit and excrement attendant on Geordie’s last days. . . . You can be sure that when he tries to stand up, his dressing gown will fall away to reveal a ruinous scrotum.”
Easier to take are the scenes depicting Nick’s nighttime grappling in a back alley with Geordie, who has escaped from his bedroom and is hallucinating a return to the trenches, or Nick’s gentle washing of his grandfather’s feet, sitting him upright so that he can put a cigarette betwen his lips and they can enjoy what will be their last smoke together.
A more significant last encounter for the old soldier has occurred months earlier in winter of that year when Nick accompanied him to the war monument and English cemetery at Thiepval, France. Geordie’s final visit, his grandson’s first, opens an eighty-year-old mystery of the death of Geordie’s brother Harry, who had been favored by their mother and had passed into a kind of unknown-soldier limbo after dying in the Battle of the Somme. The mystery of Harry is all the more puzzling, especially to Nick, because the brothers had served side by side from the start. At Thiepval, he watches his grandfather’s lips move as he stares for ten minutes at the engraved name of his brother. Nick wonders what there could be left to say after so many years. Geordie’s obvious reverence, as he stands bareheaded in the wind and snow, laying a wreath for the favored sibling who did not survive, becomes graven in his memory:
Up to that moment he’d always disliked the easy sentiment of poppy symbolism, but then he became grateful for it. . . . [A]nd from that perspective Geordie’s belief in the power of old wounds to leak into the present was not so easily dismissed.
A fantasy and a terrifying reality haunt Geordie’s last days. As death nears, he attributes the imminent end to a bayonet wound, not cancer. In lucid moments Geordie accepts what his doctor tells him. He has never, however, come to accept the unknown circumstances of his brother’s death in combat—those with which he was in conscience-stricken complicity. They are ghosts that still haunt him.
In her earlier award-winning The Regeneration Trilogy (1996), Barker dealt compassionately with the phantoms of Britain’s own “lost” generation. Tormented combat officers, such as Billy Prior and the poet-to-be Siegfried Sassoon, worn down under the stress of swinging between pacifism and patriotism, the lower and upper classes, heterosexuality and homosexuality, madness and sanity, weave like wraiths under the novelist’s compassionate scrutiny. Many passages of those books are devoted to interviews with the traumatized by Dr. William Rivers, a noted psychiatrist and anthropologist.
In Another World, Helen, a vaguely characterized university research professor, fills the psychiatrist’s role. In a work of pure fiction without actual names, storytelling convention tempts Barker to contrive a personal relationship between Geordie and his interviewer. Conveniently enough, Nick never guesses until after his grandfather’s passing the depth of feeling Geordie and Helen felt for each other. The reader is required to believe that, from her mounds of tapes, Helen has withheld, at Geordie’s request, the secret of Harry’s death. Did brother kill brother to deliver him from the pain of mortal wounds, or were mercy and murder so intertwined in memory that Geordie could find no peace for the rest of his long life?
Barker’s need to wrap up the unruly strands of plot and yet leave the reader the requisite ambiguity occasionally works a strain. Can the reader believe that for eighty years a man would reveal his guilt only to someone who, regardless of warm feelings for him, was a researcher with a vested interest? Would Geordie not have opened up with the passing of anyone who remembered Harry, especially that of the mother who wished that it had been the other son who died?
Clearly, Barker intends to dramatize the notions that the past looms like a palimpsest on the present—specifically, that the new and the old have multiple meanings and that, for the haunted, such as Geordie, truth is a thing of terror in which all the R’s—recovery, rehabilitation, resurrection, even remembrance—are tentative. Another World represents an advance on her Regeneration Trilogy books because, without the reinforcement of history and its documents and personages, Barker has strained what she has learned through her heart’s filter.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (March 1, 1999): 1150.
Library Journal 124 (April 15, 1999): 142.
New Criterion 17 (May, 1999): 74.
The New York Review of Books 46 (May 20, 1999): 28.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (May 16, 1999): 6.
Publishers Weekly 246 (February 15, 1999): 83.
Time 153 (June 7, 1999): 82.
Women’s Review of Books 16 (September, 1999): 5.
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