Barker, Pat 1943–
Barker, Pat 1943–
PERSONAL: Born May 8, 1943, in Thornaby-on-Tees, England; married David Barker (a professor of zoology), January 29, 1978; children: John, Annabel. Education: London School of Economics and Political Science, London, B.Sc., 1965.
ADDRESSES: Home—10th Ave., Durham DH1 4ED, England. Agent—Aitken Associates, 29 Fernshaw Rd., London SW10 OTG, England.
CAREER: Writer. Worked as teacher in England, 1965–70.
MEMBER: Society of Authors, PEN.
AWARDS, HONORS: Named one of Britain's twenty best young writers by Book Marketing Society, 1982; Fawcett Prize, Fawcett Society, 1982, for Union Street; Special Award, Northern Electric Arts Awards, 1993; Guardian Fiction Prize, 1993, for The Eye in the Door; Booker Prize for fiction, 1995, for The Ghost Road; honorary M.Litt., University of Teesside, 1993; honorary fellow, L.S.E., 1996; honorary D. Litt., Napier, 1996, Hertfordshire, 1998, and Durham, 1998; honorary doctorate, Open University, 1997; decorated Commander of the British Empire, 2000.
Union Street, Virago Press (London, England), 1982, Putnam (New York, NY), 1983.
Blow Your House Down, Putnam (New York, NY), 1984.
The Century's Daughter, Putnam (New York, NY), 1986, also published as Liza's England, 1996.
The Man Who Wasn't There, Virago Press (London, England), 1989, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1990.
Regeneration, Viking (London, England), 1991, Dutton (New York, NY), 1993.
The Eye in the Door, Viking (London, England), 1993, Dutton (New York, NY), 1994.
The Ghost Road, Viking (London, England), 1995, Dutton (New York, NY), 1996.
The Regeneration Trilogy, Viking (London, England), 1996.
Another World, Viking (London, England), 1998.
Border Crossing, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2001.
Double Vision Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2003.
Life Class, Penguin (London, England), 2006.
ADAPTATIONS: Union Street was adapted as the feature film Stanley & Iris, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1989, starring Robert De Niro and Jane Fonda; Regeneration was adapted as a film of the same title, 1997, directed by Gillies MacKinnon, starring Jonathan Pryce, James Wilby, and Jonny Lee Miller.
SIDELIGHTS: Pat Barker is among the most acclaimed writers to emerge from England in the 1980s. Her novels—among them Union Street, Blow Your House Down, Double Vision, and a trilogy of novels concerning World War I that includes 1995's The Ghost Road—have earned praise for both their spare, direct prose and their depictions of working-class life. Once in danger of being labeled merely a feminist writer for her stories of struggling women in industrial England, Barker has since earned praise as a voice for the human condition in general. "It has been Pat Barker's accomplishment to enlarge the scope of the contemporary English novel," noted Claudia Roth Pierpont in the New Yorker. Pierpont further described Barker as "an energetic writer who achieves much of her purpose through swift and easy dialogue and the bold etching of personality—effects so apparently simple and forthright that the complications of feeling which arise seem to do so unbidden."
Barker's first three published novels draw upon her memories of working-class women of her mother's and grandmother's generations. She herself grew up in Thornaby-on-Tees, an industrial town in the north of England. In an interview with CA, the author recalled that she turned to writing her "gritty" and "realistic" works after failing to sell a series of middle-class novels of manners. She was encouraged to explore her own background by the author Angela Carter, who read a Barker work-in-progress during a writer's conference. Barker once told CA: "I think along with the desire to write about the sort of environment I'd grown up with came a desire to write, initially at least, more about women because I felt that, although the men in that environment had also been deprived of a voice, and were not being given any kind of public recognition of their experiences of life, the women had been in a way still more deprived…. I was writing about the most silenced section of our society."
Union Street, Barker's first novel, concerns seven neighboring women near a factory in northeast England. Life for these women is trying and unrewarding. Some of them are married to alcoholics; some of them are victims of spousal abuse; all of them seem resigned to suffering. Meredith Tax, writing in the Village Voice, described the novel's characters as "women who have given up on love." Tax added, however, that Barker "dramatizes the strength of her working-class people without sentimentality, for she knows the way they participate in their own victimization." Tax also added that the various women in Union Street experience growth and strength through their suffering, noting that the novel's "point is life, and how rich and hard it is, and the different ways people have of toughing it through the pain without being crushed."
Many critics praised Union Street. Ivan Gold, who wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Barker's "pungent, raunchy … dialogue" alternates "with passages of fine understated wit," called Union Street a "first-rate first novel." Likewise, Eileen Fair-weather wrote in the New Statesman that "Barker may have written the latest, long over-due working-class masterpiece," and Elizabeth Ward wrote in the Washington Post Book World that "Barker achieves immediate distinction with Union Street." Ward added that though "the book's vision … is of a life brutal and scabrous in the extreme," Barker nonetheless includes "a flicker of affirmation" for each of the main characters. Ward called Union Street "a singularly powerful achievement." A film version of the book, released as Stanley & Iris, was produced in 1989.
Barker enjoyed further acclaim with her next novel, Blow Your House Down. Like Union Street, the second novel details events in the lives of several women in working-class, industrial England. Unlike the women in Union Street, though, the characters in Blow Your House Down are prostitutes, and their problems include not only those of the women in Union Street—notably abuse and financial insecurity—but one of survival in a red-light district frequented by a vicious, Jack the Ripper-style killer. Many reviewers praised Blow Your House Down as a gripping account of life in a gloomy industrial town. Encounter critic James Lasdun noted: "Pat Barker has an impressive feel for the starkness of English working-class existence at its roughest end." Lasdun cited Barker's "perfect ear for dialogue" and called her second novel "disturbingly convincing."
The Century's Daughter, Barker's third novel, offered further insights into the hardships of being a woman in industrial England. The story's protagonist is Liza Jarrett Wright, an octogenarian who recounts her life to Steven, a homosexual social worker who befriends her while trying to move her from a doomed 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. Comparing The Century's Daughter to Barker's preceding novels, reviewers found it more sentimental but equally compelling.
In a 1992 Village Voice interview, Barker admitted that the success of her first three novels led her to fear that she was being "boxed in" by public expectations. "I had become strongly typecast as a northern, regional, working-class feminist … label, label, label," she commented. "You get to the point where people are reading the label instead of the book." Not one to accept such limitations, Barker extended her imaginative reach and entered the world of the male psyche. The Man Who Wasn't There tells the story of Colin, a fatherless teenager who concocts fantasies about himself and his absent parent in an effort to alleviate the silent grief he feels. Times Literary Supplement reviewer Kathleen Jamie praised the book for its authentic vision of post-war Britain. "Pat Barker's talent is for people, period and dialogue; and in Colin she perfectly creates the mind of a 1950s twelve-year-old, a latch-key kid," the critic wrote.
Additionally, Barker turned to the history of World War I and wrote a trilogy of novels about mentally ill soldiers and the therapist who struggles with his own moral values while treating them. The first volume of the trilogy, 1992's Regeneration, drew a wealth of acclaim on both continents. Based on actual people and events, the novel follows Royal Welch Fusiliers hero Siegfried Sassoon through his "treatment" at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh in 1917. Sassoon has been sent to Craiglockhart after writing a letter denouncing his country's political motives in the conflict and refusing to suffer any more agonies on behalf of an ungrateful nation. His case is taken up by Dr. William H.R. Rivers, an army psychologist who soon realizes the similarities between the stresses suffered by trench soldiers and those experienced by poor women on the home front.
The Eye in the Door continues the saga of Dr. Rivers and his shell-shocked patients, this time focusing on a bisexual lieutenant named Billy Prior—a wholly fictional creation of Barker's—who suffers from "bouts of amnesia." Voiceless as well as without any memory of a six-day period during which he was injured at the front and taken to a military hospital, Prior nonetheless exhibits a raw intelligence that belies his working-class roots. Familiar with Rivers' work, Prior asks the noted psychologist to hypnotize him, a request that results in the shell-shocked officer's recall of the destruction of his fellow soldiers—the result of an enemy shell—and his futile attempts to gather their scattered remains back inside the trench. During the healing process that follows the return of his memory, Prior works in the London Intelligence Office, awaiting his return to the front as a test-case for Rivers—will the glue hold? Will he be able to withstand yet another glimpse of such horror? Meanwhile, through their interaction during Prior's therapy, Rivers and his patient begin to change roles: the psychologist becomes patient, gradually allowing himself to experience feelings of caring and empathy with regard to his patient that he had previously closed off out of necessity.
The Eye in the Door "succeeds as both historical fiction and as sequel," wrote Jim Shepard in the New York Times Book Review. "Its research and speculation combine to produce a kind of educated imagination that is persuasive and illuminating about this particular place and time."
The third novel in the World War I trilogy, The Ghost Road, was published in 1995 and received that year's Booker Prize for fiction. Both Rivers and Prior return, with Rivers now employed at a hospital in London and Prior, now fully recovered, on his way back to the battle front. Interspersed with his current activities at the hospital are the doctor's recollections of a period, a decade before the war, that he spent on Eddystone Island, in Melanesia. There, he recalls while looking around him now at a country peopled by shattered souls and battered bodies, its buildings bombed, and a sense of despair permeating the air, the old, sick, and infirm were no longer grouped with the living, but rather were said to be traveling the "ghost road." Prior, the reader soon realizes, is also traveling such a road; his trip back to the front will ultimately prove fatal. The journey back into the trenches is somehow preordained, its inexorableness juxtaposed by Barker with a meeting with poet Wilfred Owen—himself an actual casualty of the Great War—when she gives the poet voice: "At night you get the sense of something ancient…. It's as if all other wars had somehow … distilled themselves into this war, and that makes it something you … almost can't challenge."
The brutal, sometimes graphically unpleasant, aspects of the novel fascinated several critics, particularly because they had come from the pen of a female author. Commenting on Barker's self-confessed bluntness in dealing with the "masculine" facets of human behavior that reflect the violence of war, New Yorker contributor Blake Morrison noted that "there is at times something very 1990s and predictable about her preoccupation with gender, emasculation, bisexuality, and role reversals." However, the critic concluded, Barker's ultimate focus on the parallels drawn by Rivers between primitive Melanesian society and civilized England draws the novel—the close of the trilogy—toward the timeless. "Whatever the waste of human life," Morrison posited, "isn't war fundamental to the human spirit? It's a dark and distinctly un-nineties thought with which to end this complex trilogy." Times Literary Supplement reviewer Peter Parker noted that The Ghost Road "amply fulfills the high expectations raised by its predecessors," and concluded of the novel that it is "startlingly good … in its own right."
"Here is another of [Barker's] descents into hell," wrote Spectator critic Jane Gardam of the author's 2001 offering Border Crossing. In this novel, Barker explores what Gardam termed "the genesis of evil," through the development of the relationship between doctor and patient. Tom Seymour, one of the book's two protagonists, is an unhappily married psychologist who specializes in children's issues. During a walk along the banks of the Tyne River, Tom and his wife witness a man attempting to kill himself by jumping into the water. After he rescues the man, Tom learns that he is in fact a former patient: Danny Miller, who, after murdering an elderly woman at age ten, was sent to prison based on Tom's expert testimony at trial. Danny has emerged from prison thirteen years later as "a successful product of the system," according to New Criterion reviewer Brooke Allen, "startlingly attractive and intelligent" but "also clearly damaged" by his experiences. Danny asks Tom to take him on as a patient, in order to help the younger man analyze and resolve his childhood traumas. Once the sessions begin, however, Tom becomes too close to his patient, and, as Gardam noted, their relationship "crystallises into a confrontation, a duet, between good and evil." While the Library Journal contributor Wilda Williams felt that "the novel falls flat at the end, leaving the reader disappointed and dissatisfied," Allen commented that "Border Crossing is emotionally affecting and sophisticated, and poses, as well, a tormenting and almost insoluble philosophical challenge."
In Barker's tenth novel, Double Vision, the characters grapple with personal grief and loss caused by violence. The novel's protagonist, Kate Frobisher, is a sculptor and recent widow suffering from injuries caused by a car accident. Her husband, Ben, a photojournalist, was killed by a sniper bullet in Afghanistan. Stephen Sharkey, a journalist and friend of her husband, discovers that his wife is having an affair as he watches the Twin Towers collapse. Stephen is also suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome from covering conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda. After his divorce, Stephen moves in with his brother, whose home is not far from Kate's. "This may all sound too neat, but it's not," remarked Library Journal reviewer Barbara Hoffert. She concluded that Barker "shows how tightly bound we are and how our actions reverberate; every step is fraught with consequence."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 32, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
American Prospect, April 9, 2001, Mark Greif, review of Border Crossing, pp. 36-39.
Book, March, 2001, Chris Barsanti, review of Border Crossing, p. 81.
Booklist, March 1, 1999, Brad Hooper, review of Another World, p. 1150; March 1, 2001, Nancy Pearl, review of Border Crossing, p. 1225; December 1, 2003, Joanne Wilkinson, review of Double Vision,.
Economist, March 10, 2001, review of Border Crossing, p. 7; August 23, 2003, review of Double Vision, p. 69.
Encounter, September-October, 1984, James Lasdun, review of Blow Your House Down.
English Review, September, 1999, Philippa Caldicott, review of Another World, p. 18.
Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum, "Mourning After," p. 103.
Esquire, April, 2001, Sven Birkets, review of Border Crossing, p. 56.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), August 23, 2003, review of Double Vision, p. D3.
Hudson Review, winter, 2000, Dean Flower, review of Another World, p. 657.
Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 2003, review of Double Vision, pp. 1237-1239.
Library Journal, April 15, 1999, Wilda Williams, review of Another World, p. 142; April 1, 2001, Wilda Williams, review of Border Crossing, p. 131; November 1, 2003, Barbara Hoffert, review of Double Vision, p. 121.
New Criterion, May, 1999, Brooke Allen, review of Another World, p. 74; May, 2001, Brooke Allen, "Blurring the Borders," pp. 62-66.
New Statesman, May 14, 1982, Eileen Fairweather, review of Union Street; June 8, 1984; September 8, 2003, Christina Lamb, "Battle Scars," review of Double Vision, p. 53.
New Yorker, August 10, 1992, Claudia Roth Pierpoint, review of Regeneration, pp. 74-76; January 22, 1996, Blake Morrison, review of The Ghost Road, pp. 78-82.
New York Review of Books, February 15, 1996, pp. 19-21; May 20, 1999, Gabriele Annan, review of Another World, p. 28; May 17, 2001, Gabriele Annan, review of Border Crossing, p. 44.
New York Times Book Review, October 2, 1983, Ivan Gold, review of Union Street; May 15, 1994, Jim Shepard, review of The Eye in the Door, p. 9; December 14, 2003, Neil Gordon, review of Double Vision, p. 12; December 18, 2003, Joyce Carol Oates, review of Double Vision, p. 78.
Observer (London, England), May 5, 2002, review of Border Crossing, p. 18.
Publishers Weekly, February 15, 1999, review of Another World, p. 83; January 22, 2001, review of Border Crossing, p. 300; August 17, 2003, review of Double Vision, p. 18.
Spectator, November 21, 1998, Helen Osborne, review of Another World, p. 49; March 31, 2001, Jane Gardam, review of Border Crossing, p. 47; August 20, 2003, Anita Brookner, "Calm after the Storm," review of Double Vision, p. 29; November 10, 2003, review of Double Vision, p. 42.
Time, June 7, 1999, Elizabeth Gleick, review of Another World, p. 82.
Times Literary Supplement, April 14, 1989, Kathleen Jamie, review of The Man Who Wasn't There, p. 404; September 8, 1995, Peter Parker, review of The Ghost Road; October 23, 1998, Carol Birch, review of Another World, p. 25; March 30, 2001, Robert MacFarlane, review of Border Crossing, p. 24; August 29, 2003, Michael Caines, "News from the Burning City: Pat Barker's Vivid Variations on War, Memory, and Present Suffering," review of Double Vision, p. 19.
Village Voice, December 6, 1983, Meredith Tax, review of Union Street; July 14, 1992, interview and review of Regeneration, p. 91.
Washington Post Book World, September 18, 1983, Elizabeth Ward, review of Union Street.
Women's Review of Books, September, 1999, E.J. Graff, review of Another World, p. 5.