Pat Barker Barker, Pat (Vol. 94) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Pat Barker 1943–

English novelist.

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."

Biographical Information

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 Her initial, unpublished literary work dealt primarily with the middle-class environment that her education, profession, and marriage (to a professor of zoology) had provided her.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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Union Street (novel) 1982
Blow Your House Down (novel) 1984
The Century's Daughter (novel) 1986
The Man Who Wasn't There (novel) 1989
Regeneration (novel) 1991
The Eye in the Door (novel) 1993
The Ghost Road (novel) 1995

∗These novels constitute a trilogy focusing on World War I.

Robert Christgau (review date October 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Century's Daughter, in The Village Voice Literary Supplement, No. 49, October, 1986, pp. 3-4.

[In the following positive review of The Century's Daughter, Christgau argues that Barker's themes are well served by the novel's flashback structure.]

As 84-year-old Liza Wright searched for her past in a bed of coals to begin Chapter 2 of Pat Barker's The Century's Daughter, I felt annoyed if not betrayed. Just when I was all set to find out how Liza was going to get on with the social worker she'd met in Chapter 1, Barker was pulling a flashback on me. What a drag. But then I remembered that although Barker adheres skillfully and unquestioningly to realist convention, you don't read her for narrative momentum—she has no special gift for that particular illusion of coherence. The most formally satisfying of her three books—1982's Union Street, a collection of loosely interlocking stories whose ungainly overall shape suggests the chancy pattern of casual-to-intimate community that unfolds within it—doesn't pretend to be a novel, and 1984's Blow Your House Down, which does, regularly interrupts its whodunit conceit.

No, what makes Barker such a treat isn't plot. It's realism's other little secret: documentary value. Just as you read London to learn about the sea or Mann to learn about the German bourgeoisie or Mason to learn about K-Mart America, you read Barker to learn about England's just-barely-working class, especially the women of that class. While England's workingmen have...

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Kathleen Jamie (review date 14-20 April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Filling in the Blanks," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4489, April 14-20, 1989, p. 404.

[Jamie is a Scottish poet, dramatist, and critic. In the following review of The Man Who Wasn't There, she applauds Barker's ability to draw interesting characters but suggests that the novel's plot is somewhat confusing.]

The man who wasn't there is Colin's father. "Shot down", says Viv, his mum; "Buggered off", thinks Colin. He noticed on the first day at school his birth certificate was shorter than everyone else's. Now that he can read he's not going to wait till he's twenty-one to be told about his father, as Viv says he must. Next time Viv goes out to...

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Dinah Birch (review date 20 April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Growing Up," in London Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 8, April 20, 1989, pp. 20-2.

[In the following excerpt, Birch favorably assesses Barker's use of language and insights into her characters' lives in The Man Who Wasn't There.]

[Pat Barker's] novels have all been versions of the same intense story: working-class families or, more specifically, the women of such families, contending with the inequities of poverty and ignorance. Men have always existed on the margins of her narratives. Etiolated and ineffective, they are seen only in relation to the lives of sturdier mothers, wives, sisters or daughters. As a rule they die or disappear, fading out of the story...

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Mark Wormald (review date 24 May 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Treating War's Insanity," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4599, May 24, 1991, p. 20.

[In the following highly positive review of Regeneration, Wormald praises Barker for the psychological insights into personality formation that make the book more than an excellent historical novel.]

On April 12, 1917, Captain Siegfried Sassoon was wounded in action on the Hindenburg Line; ten days later, recovering at Denmark Hill Hospital in London, he wrote "The Rear-Guard", and later appended a note citing the poem's "strength" as a refutation of Edmund Gosse's idea that he "was suffering from severe shock". Readers of his War Poems are likely to side...

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Ann Ardis (essay date October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Political Attentiveness vs. Political Correctness: Teaching Pat Barker's Blow Your House Down," in College Literature, Vol. 18, No. 3, October, 1991, pp. 44-54.

[Ardis is an American critic and educator. In the following essay, she discusses the effect of Barker's Blow Your House Down on her college literature classes and examines the ways in which the novel addresses various feminist themes.]

The author blurb on the inside back cover of the Ballantine paperback edition of Pat Barker's novel Blow Your House Down (1984) reads as follows: "Pat Barker was born in Thornaby-on-Tees in 1943. She was educated at the local grammar school and at...

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Rob Nixon (review date 14 July 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Soldiers of Misfortune: In the Trenches with Pat Barker," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXXVII, No. 28, July 14, 1992, p. 91.

[In the following highly positive review of Regeneration, Nixon discusses some of the major themes in Barker's work.]

The cabbie who drove me the few miles from Durham to Pat Barker's home in Newton Hall announced that we were entering the largest housing estate in all of Europe. Newton Hall was also, he added and proved, Europe's easiest estate to get lost in: Some streets, Barker's among them, had not made it onto the map he thumbed with an air of practiced futility. Barker must be familiar with the sensation of being uncharted....

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Claudia Roth Pierpont (review date 10 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "English Lessons," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXVIII, No. 25, August 10, 1992, pp. 74-9.

[In the following excerpt from a review in which she also discusses Caryl Phillips's novel Cambridge (1992), Pierpont favorably assesses Regeneration.]

"My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity," Wilfred Owen wrote, in 1918, in an introduction he planned for his first collected volume. The lines eventually appeared in a slim edition of Owen's poems selected and published by friends in 1920, two years after his death, at age twenty-five, by German machine-gun fire during the week before the Armistice. Owen had begun his introduction with the...

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Julia O'Faolain (review date 10 September 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Suffering Classes," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4719, September 10, 1993, p. 21.

[O'Faolain is an English-born Irish novelist, short story writer, and critic. In the following favorable review of The Eye in the Door, she describes the novel as "an original and impressive achievement."]

Pat Barker's sequel to her dazzling and disturbing Regeneration (1991) has as much scope as that book, greater buoyancy and an equally impressive ability to anchor major issues in the experience of her real and invented characters. Set in the spring of 1918, it shows the English psyche under pressure after four years of war. The first lines give the...

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Dinah Birch (review date 21 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Invalided Home," in London Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 20, October 21, 1993, p. 22.

[In the following positive review of The Eye in the Door, Birch describes the novel as "a continuation, and an enrichment, of Regeneration."]

Working-class memory generated Pat Barker's writing. Her early fiction presented itself as a tribute to generations of suffering and survival in the industrial North-East of England. It seemed to fall into a ready-made tradition: 'the grit, the humour, the reality of working-class life', Virago burbled cheerfully about Union Street (1982). But there was more to Barker's work than that. Alongside the realism of her accounts...

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Peter Parker (review date 8 September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The War That Never Becomes the Past," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4823, September 8, 1995, pp. 4-5.

[Parker is English nonfiction writer and biographer. In the following review of The Ghost Road, he remarks on the distinctive qualities of Barker's trilogy and praises her blending of fiction and historical fact.]

As we approach the millennium, the pall cast across our century by the First World War shows no sign of lifting. In spite of later and bloodier conflicts, in spite of the gradual dilution of public ceremonies of remembrance, in spite of the fact that almost everyone who fought in the war has now died, the Great War for Civilization (as...

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Tony Gould (review date 29 September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Undertones of War," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 8, No. 372, September 29, 1995, p. 57.

[In the review below, Gould remarks favorably on The Ghost Road.]

[The Ghost Road] is the final volume in Pat Barker's impressive trilogy of novels about the first world war. The first, Regeneration, is set in Craiglockhart, the war hospital famous (in literary history, at least) as the place where Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen met, and centres on Sassoon's clinical relationship with the psychologist and anthropologist W H R Rivers. The second, The Eye in the Door, in which Rivers again plays a major role, also deals with historical...

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Charlotte Joll (review date 30 September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Back to the Front," in The Spectator, Vol. 275, No. 8725, September 30, 1995, pp. 44-5.

[In the following review, Joll remarks on Barker's treatment of shell shock and war in The Ghost Road.]

The Ghost Road is the final volume of Pat Barker's trilogy about the first world war. It continues the story of a group of shell-shocked soldiers, some real (notably Siegfried Sassoon) and some fictional, who were lucky enough to be treated by the empathetic and dedicated neurologist William Rivers. Barker uses this framework to write about the lives of men who, for a time at least, were too ill to go on fighting, but while back in England felt guilty and at odds...

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Paul Levy (essay date 8 November 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pat Barker Wins Booker Prize," in The Wall Street Journal, November 8, 1995, p. A20.

[Below, Levy remarks on the awarding of the Booker Prize to The Ghost Road and criticizes the novel as anachronistic.]

The Booker Prize jury has added insult to the ayatollahs' injury, cheating Salman Rushdie of the £20,000 ($31,600) 1995 Booker Prize for Fiction. In its 27th year, Britain's most celebrated (though no longer richest) award for a book has been given to Pat Barker for her The Ghost Road, which this year's Booker chairman, George Walden, praised faintly as "clear, hard prose." Following the heavily applauded announcement, several jubilant...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Caldwell, Gail. "Back to the Front: The Conclusion of Pat Barker's Extraordinary Trilogy of World War I, Winner of the Booker Prize." Boston Globe (3 December 1995): 72.

Comments favorably on The Ghost Road, praising Barker's grasp of World War I's effect on England.

Hoffman, Eva. "The Super Bowl of Fiction." The New York Times Book Review (26 November 1995): 35.

Comments on the awarding of the Booker Prize to Barker.

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. "Shell Shock." The New York Times Book Review (31 December 1995): 5....

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