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.
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 She taught for several years while writing unpublished works about the middle-class environment that her education, profession, and marriage had provided her.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）.
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.
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.”