Pat Barker 1943–
For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 32.
Barker is one of the most highly acclaimed novelists of the last two decades. Her work is praised for its spare, direct prose, insightful depictions of working-class life, and sensitive evocation of historical figures and events. Barker's first works focused on the lives of working-class English women, earning her the label of feminist writer from several critics. Her later works—including the World War I trilogy comprised of Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993), and the Booker Prize-winning The Ghost Road (1995)—refine and expand her thematic range. Critic Rob Nixon wrote: "Few novelists are so unsentimentally animated by people's ability to chalk up small, shaky, but estimable victories over remorseless circumstances. Readers come away from all her novels with an altered feeling for the boundaries and capacities of human courage."
Barker was born in Thornaby-on-Tees, England, to working-class parents. She attended the London School of Economics and Political Science, earning a B.S. degree in 1965 and going on to teach for several years afterward. Her initial, unpublished literary work dealt primarily with the middle-class environment that her education, profession, and marriage (to a professor of zoology) had provided her.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. Her literary career began at this point, and she has gone on to win numerous awards.
Barker's first novel, Union Street (1982), concerns seven neighboring women near a factory in northeast England. Life for them is trying and unrewarding: some are married to alcoholics; others are victims of spousal abuse. All of them, however, are resigned to suffering. Critics note that the bleakness of the portrait is offset by the strength of perseverance the women display—their refusal to succumb to the pain in their lives is depicted as a cause for hope. Like Union Street, Blow Your House Down (1984) details events in the lives of several women in working-class, industrial England. Unlike her previous characters, though, these women are prostitutes, and their problems include not only abuse and financial insecurity, but physical survival in a red-light district stalked by a vicious, Jack the Ripper-like killer. The Century's Daughter (1986) offers further insights into the hardships of being a woman in industrialized England. The protagonist, an octogenarian named Liza Jarrett Wright, recounts her life to Steven, a homosexual social worker who befriends her while trying to move her out of her dangerous, decaying neighborhood. Liza tells Steven of her childhood spent in poverty and neglect. She also recalls her son, killed during World War II, and her promiscuous daughter, whose child Liza raised herself. Barker examines the male psyche in The Man Who Wasn't There (1989), a novel about Colin, a fatherless teenager who concocts fantasies about himself and his absent parent in an effort to alleviate the grief he feels. Barker's World War I trilogy is set primarily in England and centers on the historical figure of Dr. William H. R. Rivers, the anthropologist and neurologist who became famous for his work on the treatment of "shell shock"—the condition commonly referred to today as post-traumatic stress disorder. Regeneration is a fictionalized account of the relationship between Rivers and Siegfried Sassoon, the esteemed English poet who was also a hero in the Royal Army during the first world war. Sassoon was sent to the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh in 1917 after writing a letter in which he denounced England's motives in the war and stated his refusal to suffer on behalf of an ungrateful nation. Rivers, then an army psychologist, takes his case and soon realizes the similarities between the stresses suffered by soldiers in the trenches and those experienced by poor women on the home front. The Eye in the Door continues Rivers's story, this time focusing on a bisexual lieutenant named Billy Prior (a purely fictional character) who has become mute and suffers from amnesia as a result of his wartime experiences. Prior returns to combat in The Ghost Road, the concluding volume of the trilogy. The narrative encompasses Rivers's therapeutic work, his musings on past experiences as an anthropologist among Melanesian head-hunters, and Prior's life on the frontlines as the war and the novel move toward their conclusion: the battle at Sambre-Oise Canal in November, 1918.
Barker's work has received unusually high and consistent praise. Her first four novels, those devoted to the lives of the dispossessed in English industrial centers, have been lauded for their realism, dialogue, and lack of sentimentality. Union Street was hailed by Eileen Fairweather as a "long over-due working-class masterpiece." The World War I trilogy, which many reviewers feel constitutes Barker's most accomplished work, is hailed by Peter Parker as "one of the richest and most rewarding works of fiction in recent times."