5 May 2008
Early days yet, but I’m feeling sceptical. We’re in the land of… a particular sort of novel. Kate (ho-hum) is a highly successful sculptor (of course) whose husband Ben has fairly recently been killed in Afghanistan. So she’s still grieving. And then she goes and gets herself injured in a crash, so she’s going to have problems finishing a commission. But, luckily, there’s a highly suitable, bright, good looking young man (English degree, but working as a gardener) who can be her assistant. Even Kate is surprised how easy it is to get him: her friend the vicar knows him and he needs the work because it’s the winter. And, meanwhile, there’s been a big cull of all the local livestock in the last year or so: obviously the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001-3. So Kate’s nutty friend is feeling just as bereaved as she is by the death of her ‘boys’, four sheep, with names.
Is it going to be about redemption? The attractive assistant has a back story – which the vicar isn’t telling, but which is obviously going to take some sorting out; Kate still feels the death of her husband as an ‘amputation’ – and now she has a physical recovery to worry about, running parallel with the emotional one; the vicar’s wife has left him, and his daughter has been ill; even the nutty friend hasn’t had the heart to replace her boys yet. And the commission is for a sculpture of Christ, for goodness’ sake. I bet it won’t look like Grunewald’s. For some reason I’ve been thinking of Gemma Bovary by Posy Simmonds: complicated middle-class goings-on in the sticks. Kate had noticed the gardener before her husband’s death, and had thought if she hadn’t been a married woman…. Is this what Aga sagas are like?
After I last wrote, another character appeared, and we’ve been following him more than Kate. He’s Stephen, and he worked with Kate’s husband: he wrote the copy while Ben took the pictures in various war zones. So there are plenty of shared memories about traumatic experiences – Stephen pretends to himself that he’s not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – but now, of course, he has nobody to share them with. It’s as though Barker wants to return to the psychological territory of Regeneration and hasn’t found anywhere quite convincing enough to place it in.
I’m still sceptical. It’s all too convenient: Stephen, in his first proper meeting with Kate (they’ve only met previously at private views) says how much he misses Ben. Kate doesn’t have to say anything, of course, but it’s clear that they’ve been forced into being two sides of a triangle, with a terrible absence where the third side should be. Also, Stephen happens to be staying in his brother’s holiday cottage, in the middle of nowhere – but quite close to where Kate lives. Two lonely people together, as Engelbert used to put it. And Kate’s hunky assistant is damaged, too: educated, hiding (until Kate finds him out) behind glasses with plain glass in them.
And then, this being Pat Barker, there has to be some sex. Stephen guiltily finds himself lusting after the vicar’s daughter, half his age, then – not guiltily at all – shags her. In a rather startling Billy Prior moment, after she’s reached orgasm but he hasn’t, she sticks her finger into his arse. Well.
Anyway. A less physical theme of the novel is emerging: the book that Stephen wants to write – he’s given up the day job because even he could tell it was doing his head in – is about representations of war. Goya is mentioned – as are some of the shocking images in Ben’s photographs. Stephen has even found a photo of a dead girl whose body he and Ben had discovered in Sarajevo. She was semi-naked, having been raped and shot, and at the time Stephen’s instinct was to cover her nakedness. But Ben must have gone back later, uncovered her again, and got his photo. To Stephen, who’s never seen the picture before, it’s like a second violation. And then there’s a photo of an execution: Stephen knows, because Ben told him, that the execution took place only because Ben was willing to photograph it. So I suppose the question is, was Ben a bit of a monster really? Or do these things ‘need’ to be seen?
There’s another difficulty here. Graham Swift covered exactly the same question 20 years ago in Out of this World – and it’s hardly a fresh controversy anyway. The work of the great photographers of late-20th Century wars – Don McCullin, Tim Page (that real-life victim of war) – was superseded decades ago by the video image. Sure, there are still questions to be asked about how war is represented, about what should or should not be seen, but… Barker’s questions were being asked while the US was still in Vietnam.
I’m three quarters of the way through and, with one exception, redemption does seem to be in the air. And, who knows? Maybe the exception isn’t as sinister as he seems. I’m talking about Peter the gardener/ assistant. Pat Barker has turned a lot of her attention to him in the last few chapters, and he’s a bit – what? – murky. It turns out he was in jail, but Alec the liberal vicar, who got him the job with Kate, isn’t saying what for. And he went out with, and is still in love with, Jessica the vicar’s daughter, the one middle-aged Stephen is now shagging… not weird in itself, but he can make himself a bit, well, visible when you’re out for a quiet evening. But all this is nothing compared to a couple of other little things he does. One is, he writes very disturbing short stories focusing on the point of view of middle-aged women in danger. (Just like the reader Stephen, who’s read them, wonders if Ian McEwan was an influence…?) And then one night Kate wakes up to find him in her studio, in her clothes, miming the actions of a sculptor. At first she thinks he’s messing with her Christ commission, but he seems to be just getting the feel of it. Literally, in respect of the clothes.
Other stuff. Kate’s had some treatment and her shoulder’s a lot better – so at least one aspect of the healing process is under way. And Stephen, spending time up close and personal with Jessica (literally, this being a Pat Barker novel), notices at a lunch party how sexy Kate’s looking. This is the same lunch at which Jessica is seething – I’ll come back to some of the reasons in a minute – and tells Stephen she’s not impressed with the ‘pathetic’ way he was ogling Kate…. (Surely we aren’t going to get such a neat tying up of two loose ends? Kate and Stephen – the ones who happen to have conveniently holed up in the same bit of the middle of nowhere?)
Aga saga? Dunno: as I said, I’ve never read any… but the lunch party joins Stephen, Jessica and her father the vicar, mad Angela the sheep woman, now happily shagging the vicar, and a male student, not in Jessica’s league but with his tongue on the floor anyway. The hosts are Stephen’s ubersuccessful brother and his wife. She’s furious at the way her life’s turned out, furious at her husband’s serial infidelities. What a tangled web – and you can see why Jessica wants no part of it. And I’ve just remembered another bit of entanglement: Stephen’s brother has funding for some embryo research, and his wife’s furious about that as well. And the vicar makes Stephen uncomfortable about his views on therapeutic sex – when that’s exactly what he’s having with, so to speak (nobody actually uses the words), his fucking daughter.
Sex. This, as I’ve said, being a Pat Barker novel, sex rears its head in complicated ways. Part of the discomfort of Stephen’s conversation with the vicar is the separation from love. Sometimes you just need to do it, he seems to be saying – and he’s not wholly sure whether that’s all there is between him and Justine. And there’s another complicated Bosnia memory to go with the one involving the dead rape victim, in which Ben figures rather callously: Stephen went with a crowd to a lap-dancing bar and hated the Pavlovian predictability of his own response. It doesn’t matter that these women are probably terribly exploited and unhappy: if they wave their arses at you there’s definitely, er, a response. For Stephen it takes the wind out of any talk about redemptive sex. Hmm. Complicated.
Chapter 22 to the end
It’s all right… but it feels like that line in Romeo and Juliet: Wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied? We get redemption, but not convincingly enough. Ok, Pat Barker wants to remind us that life’s not always like that… but come on. After I last wrote we get 40-odd pages with no mention, for instance, of Kate. Before the end, Barker kind of ties up that particular strand – the sculpture’s finished – but she’s still not over her husband’s death. Peter: he killed an old woman, not really meaning to, when he was a kid. Ok. But we only find that out after Pat Barker’s played a little trick on us: burglars arrive and Stephen sees they drive a van like Peter’s. So there’s some business about whether the slate should ever be wiped clean for ex-cons, because for a while Peter’s the one the woolly liberals (and the reader) can’t help suspecting. It wasn’t him but, I suppose, Barker’s made her point.
It feels odd that the character we started the novel with is marginalised and characters who only appeared some way in have to hold most of the weight of the novel in this last section. It turns into Stephen’s story, with Jessica there in support. Has Barker wrong-footed us again by making their relationship stronger by the end than it was at the beginning – and by making a break-up seem inevitable after the horrible lunch party? Maybe… but it feels like a trick, because it takes another Event – like Kate’s road accident at the start that gives her a physical trauma to match the psychological one – to bring them properly close.
It happens 30 or 40 pages from the end, which isn’t long to introduce a Big New Thing, and it’s the burglary I mentioned. Not only does it raise issues of trust and forgiveness (or whatever) in respect of Peter the ex-con; it also gives Stephen the chance to rescue Jessica from attack. The set-up is crude: he happens to be walking up a convenient nearby hill when he sees some blokes taking the telly out of his brother’s house. The penny drops, just as Jessica arrives (she looks after their autistic son – did I mention him? – whose story is also unresolved and problematic at the end). Oh no, she’ll burst in on them and…. And the point of view changes to hers as Barker describes incredibly well what it would be like to be a woman attacked by panicking thieves. (The crude set-up was the business Barker had to get through to arrive at this set piece.) Anyway, Stephen gets there in time to stop them going too far: at least they hadn’t raped her, although one of them had knocked her about a bit. It binds them and they go off into the sunset – or on a boat-trip to the Farne Islands ending in lots of lovely, redemptive, loving sex. Everybody say Ahh.
Barker also gets deeper inside the head of Alec, Jessica’s vicar father, than at any time earlier. He’s having a crisis of conscience, to do with putting his daughter’s life in danger (he thinks), and with the fact that he’s a divorced vicar about to re-marry. And all this just at the time when Kate’s sculpture is finally coming to some sort of completion. How ironic, I suppose – but it’s hard to be bothered about a character who hasn’t been fully enough drawn before this.
I’m a bit dissatisfied because it seems that Barker wasn’t quite sure what to do once she’d brought together and set in motion all these damaged people: widow, two divorced men including a vicar, philandering husband/ furious wife/ autistic son, overwrought ex-con with sensational back story, woman grieving over dead sheep…. She marries some of them off, leaves at least one story unresolved (the philanderer/ seething wife) and simply ignores any questions there might be about Peter and Kate, the characters who filled out the first third of the book. And the debate about the moral questions surrounding war reporting is simply shelved. Stephen’s book about it suddenly seems far less important to him, and he lets it get marginalised.
The ending, with its rather obvious nod in the direction of the Power of Lurve, feels hasty. We need more scrutiny of those characters who aren’t going to be so easily sorted out – and about some of the moral/philosophical questions Barker got going on but then seemed to lose interest in.