Border Crossing

by Pat Barker

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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...

(This entire section contains 2063 words.)

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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 camaraderie. This devotion nonetheless masked the nonmythic dimensions of Danny’s family context. Danny’s father liked to think of himself as a gentleman farmer; but in reality he knew nothing about what was required of him and he spent most of his days frittering away the family’s wages in a local pub. He did serve in the army, but he was sent to locales (Belfast and the Falklands) where the lines between soldiers and citizens were questionable and sometimes difficult to fathom. Danny’s father could not reconcile these ambiguities and lost respect for human life. Even worse, Danny suffered years of horrible emotional and physical abuse at his father’s hands. Even so, the boy could not overcome the mythic dimensions of the father-son relationship. At one point Danny complains, “I think when it comes to your parents you might as well stick with the myths, because you’re never going to get at the truth.”

Given these circumstances, it is easy to understand the precipitating event that led to the murder: Three days before his tenth birthday, Danny’s father walked out on him. Danny sought relief for—and invulnerability from—this pain of abandonment by engaging in acts of petty violence, setting fires, breaking into people’s houses. After three months of rebellion and rage, Danny attacked his mother. The stage was set for the crossing of an invisible psychological border. How can one understand the mind of a ten-year-old murderer? Certainly his killing of the old woman was not premeditated. When she found him in her house, and tried to throw him out, he defended himself, pushed her down the stairs, and then crossed a line, a border of sorts. Rather than running away he methodically smothered her with a pillow as she lay at the bottom of the stairs. Somehow the old woman came to represent his weak-willed mother, the enemy civilians his father taught him were expendable, and the rabbits and chickens that were routinely slaughtered on the farm. He knew Lizzie Parks would not come back to life; but her life meant nothing to him at that moment. For those few moments he was invulnerable, triumphant, and in control. Danny’s father had taught him well.

Now Danny Peters is at a critical juncture in his life. After thirteen years he is free, and yet he feels a need for some kind of resolution he never has experienced before. His meeting with Tom Seymour was no coincidence. He followed Tom for days before his precipitous leap into the river. He instinctively sought help from Tom, perhaps because he sensed Tom’s skills and compassion in the interview when he was a boy of ten. He does not want therapy, but he wants to move on, to establish an adult identity, and restore his life. In this context, Barker harshly critiques the English criminal justice system. Danny Peters was taken to a special secure school for eight years. There he received no special counseling to help him gain a perspective on his crime. At the age of eighteen he was sent to a hard-core prison for the next five years, where he experienced repeated harassment and periodic rapes. Then he was released and essentially expected to fend for himself. Tom believes that Danny needed more attention and expertise directed at his abusive past so that he could learn to function in the adult world.

Another reason Danny requests Tom’s aid is that he has never been able to revisit, psychologically, the scene of his crime. When he was a teenager at the Long Garth School, where he was sent after being convicted of murder, he met a teacher, Angus MacDonald, who was the first person there to ask him to write about his past. MacDonald helped Danny make progress, but Danny was not ready to face the most crucial scene from his past: the day he murdered Lizzie Parks. All his defenses went up, and Danny terminated the relationship by wrongfully accusing MacDonald of sexual abuse. Now, seven years later, he wants Tom to bring him to the same point he was unable to face earlier.

The more Tom learns about Danny’s past, the more he realizes he is dealing with a potentially dangerous character. Barker heightens suspense by suggesting that Danny may be plotting revenge against Tom. Danny survived his childhood by becoming a kind of chameleon, as if he had no identity of his own. Because he learned that abuse could be triggered for the slightest of reasons, he learned to charm, to manipulate, and to control relationships. People who worked closely with him came to believe that he was innocent of murder. He fooled Bernard Greene, the headmaster at Long Garth School; he tricked Angus MacDonald into becoming his unofficial “therapist”; and now he appears to be manipulating Tom as well. Yet of all the people who have interacted with Danny, only Tom appears to be his intellectual equal. He holds his own against his clever, manipulative antagonist.

Tom is faced with trying to balance his professional and personal identities as he works with Danny. Three plot developments finally compel Tom to cross the invisible border between his professional self and his personal self. The first crisis is provoked by a television news report about two boys, aged eleven and twelve, who have murdered an old woman. Now the press is after Danny Peters in order to enrich their stories. Terrified that his identity will be revealed, Danny seeks sanctuary at Tom’s house. Tom takes advantage of Danny’s anxiety and fearfulness and prompts him to relive the day he murdered Lizzie Parks. Revisiting the day of the murder leaves Danny in a dangerously unbalanced, nearly catatonic state. Then a third crisis materializes: Members of the press surround Tom’s house. The media has discovered that Danny Peters is inside.

The resolution of these crises is swift and in some respects anticlimactic. Danny Peters survives and is whisked away by the police, kept away from the press, and prepared for a new identity. Tom Seymour survives, escapes from the clutches of the press, and with the closure of divorce begins to consider a future with Martha Pitt, Danny’s probation officer. Still, one truth Tom acknowledges in the midst of these crises will never be resolved. When he observes Danny’s psychological breakdown during and after the recounting of the murder, Tom’s professional self realizes Danny requires medical assistance in a secure facility, but that would mean Danny’s parole would have to be revoked. He would no longer be a free man. When Tom decides to set aside his professional concerns, he acknowledges both the power of Danny’s persuasive appeals to him throughout their renewed relationship, and his own self-doubts about the lack of justice accorded Danny by legal, educational, and medical institutions. Tom realizes he must learn to live with his decision just as Danny must learn to surmount the traumas inflicted upon him in his childhood and accept responsibility for the horrible brutality he inflicted upon Lizzie Parks.

Sources for Further Study

The American Prospect 12 (April 9, 2001): 36.

Booklist 97 (March 1, 2001): 1225.

Esquire 135 (April, 2001): 56.

Library Journal 126 (April 1, 2001): 131.

New Criterion 19 (May, 2001): 62.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (March 18, 2001): 10.

Publishers Weekly 248 (January 22, 2001): 300.

The Times Literary Supplement, March 30, 2001, p. 24.