Pat Barker’s novels are emotionally wrenching. As many critics have observed, Barker’s frank realism and attention to historical detail can equally satisfy and repel readers, often in the same passages. Barker brings readers’ attention to bear on terrible hazards: war, insanity, rape, murder, illicit sexuality, dysfunctional families, and child abuse. The prospect of violence—individual or communal, physical or psychological—gives great force to her plots. Moreover, she typically uses a third-person narrative point of view of limited omniscience. Shifting section by section from the inner thoughts of one character to another both enhances the immediacy of their experiences and constructs multiple perspectives on their temperaments. The effect is intimate and entangling.
Barker’s acute ear for dialects and individual quirks of speech is the hallmark of her realism. Through dialogue she creates lifelike characters from a variety of backgrounds: for instance, working-class women in Union Street; prostitutes in Blow Your House Down; common soldiers, medical personnel, and upper-class poets in the Regeneration trilogy; and artists in Double Vision and Life Class. In fact, it is primarily through dialogue in the Regeneration trilogy that Barker conveys the brilliance of a psychologist during his treatment of his patients. Likewise, dialogue contributes to the uncompromising horror of the rape of a prostitute in Blow Your House Down and the eerie savageness in children in Another World, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Border Crossing.
The historical accuracy of the novels set wholly or in part during World War I received wide praise. Not only is Barker starkly vivid in portraying the confusion and shock of combat, she also depicts the struggles of physicians and psychologists to treat the wounded. She mixes historical people with fictional characters with flawless credibility and captures larger social anxieties, such as the fear gripping English women during the murderous career of the “Yorkshire ripper,” who figures in Blow Your House Down.
Sexuality is another focus of Barker’s unflinching realism, and often she treats it as a form of violence, yet there are also examples of principal characters growing closer emotionally because of sex, even when extramarital, as is the case with Billy Prior and Sarah Lumb in The Eye in the Door and Paul Tarrant and Elinor Brooke in Life Class.
In addition to love between characters in troubled times, Barker examines the dynamics of troubled families in ordinary times. Her early novels feature families comprising a mother and her children, the father either absent or unknown, as in Union Street and The Man Who Wasn’t There. In Another World, however, Barker considers the problems of a husband and wife who both have children from previous marriages. The children are secretive, prone to deception and violence, and manipulative; the parents must handle them with great care to avoid alienating each other.
The resolutions to Barker’s novels eschew completeness and closure; instead, characters make accommodations that set the terms for their future. In some cases, this means a compromise with beliefs. In the Regeneration trilogy, for example, a celebrated poet compromises his conviction that the war is wrong and returns to duty in combat. He later becomes a spokesperson for the generation nearly obliterated by the war. In other cases, the compromise means choosing among loved ones. In Another World, parents Nick and Fran must each send away the child from a previous marriage in order for their current marriage to succeed and their common son to survive. In most cases, there is death and guilt, if not despair.
The Regeneration trilogy
The Regeneration trilogy centers on the work of pioneering psychologist W. H. R. Rivers in treating shell shock, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, late in World War I. The trilogy focuses on Rivers and several of his patients and their friends, some...
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