Pat Barker may be the most important progressive novelist to reach full
artistic maturity in the past 10 years. The more famous she becomes, however, the
less frequently do critics acknowledge her as an ardently political writer.
Border Crossing, her ninth novel--this one a crime thriller set in
contemporary, urban England--is likely to cement the misunderstanding that Barker
has become apolitical, a classic writer on "the human condition," or, worse, a
"safe" woman artist in middle age who turned to writing only after bearing her
two children, eventually found fame, and lately writes about families and
Just a decade ago, reviewers perceived Barker as a radical feminist who wrote
gritty, committed novels about England's industrial north. "I had become strongly
typecast as a northern, regional, working-class feminist ... label, label,
label," she wearily told The Village Voice in 1991. Barker's image changed
when she published a celebrated trilogy of World War I novels primarily about
men: Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993), and The
Ghost Road (1995). As the awards rolled in--including the Booker Prize, the
United Kingdom's highest literary honor--her earlier political stance was
forgiven, or forgotten. Regeneration and its successors, novels that
looked serious and male, could be lumped into the familiar category of "antiwar."
And an antiwar book is a book that anyone can love.
But this way of praising Barker's work misses its essence. When Barker wrote
about men disciplining other men, men falling in love, dissenters escaping social
strictures or informing on one another, she wasn't just writing about history. To
say Regeneration is antiwar was like saying that Toni Morrison's
Beloved is antislavery. Barker's trilogy anatomizes regimes of gender and
discipline that underpin the way we live now; it is a consummately political
work, undeniably feminist, passionately intelligent, eminently readable.
Critics have never fully believed that "the personal is political." Yet
Barker's subtle novels, which interweave social and domestic drama, give that
slogan tangible meaning. Every intimate scene--every relation, hostile or
kind--prepares the ground for violence or commitment. Her new book, Border
Crossing, is smaller in scope than the trilogy, and subtler and quieter than
some would think a political work has any right to be. It's a crime novel that is
only peripherally about crime-- a deep meditation on liberal values in the form
of a thriller. Border Crossing returns to the paradox inherent in so much
of Barker's work: How is rehabilitation possible if it takes place in a society
that may not be good enough to reward a new self? But this time around, Barker
exhibits a complex awareness of the flaw in individuals that can threaten any
hopes for a new beginning: the problem, beyond all politics, of evil.
Border Crossing swiftly builds up a world of conflicting social and
personal responsibilities. Psychologist Tom Seymour averts a suicide by pulling a
young man from the filthy River Tyne; he then learns that the man he saved is
Danny Miller, who as a boy went to prison for murder partly because of Tom's
expert testimony in court. The state mechanisms that put Danny away 13 years
earlier are working now to place him back into society. The young man attends
university; he is oddly magnetic, hostile, bright, handsome, and possibly
manipulative. Counselors and teachers who have worked with Danny since his
conviction attest both to his charm and to his deviousness. Tom sympathizes with
the boy's effort. Because Danny never received the counseling he deserved after
his incarceration, Tom agrees that he'll do the sessions now.
But the more he learns about Danny's past, the more he must question his faith
in the system and his own equivocal role in the boy's fate. The solitary
confrontation between the two men, in pages and pages of psychiatric encounters,
sits at the heart of the book. The therapy accelerates toward the half-repressed
murder of Lizzie Parks, the elderly woman Danny threw down a flight of stairs and
suffocated at age 10--an ultimate picture of wasteful violence, motiveless and
The larger story is that of the shadowy borderlines of violence itself. As the
director of the Youth Violence Project in a depressed northern city, Tom sees the
most brutal (and brutalized) children who wash into the drift net of the juvenile
justice system. Michelle, raped at age eight, bit off the nose of a foster
sibling. Ryan and his mates threw a security guard down an escalator. Perfectly
sane, these children talk constantly about "justice." Any insult must be avenged:
Many of the children, and most of the adolescents he talked to,
were preoccupied--no, obsessed--with issues of loyalty, betrayal, justice, rights
(theirs), courage, cowardice, reputation, shame. Theirs was a warrior morality,
primitive and exacting. Nothing much in common with the values of mainstream
society, but then they came from places that had been pushed to the edge: sink
housing estates, urban ghettos.
But the children's values, of course, have everything to do with "the
values of mainstream society," even if the two sets don't coincide. Loyalty and
betrayal, rights and reputation, are as much the principles of the boardroom as
of the juvenile detention center. Some citizens follow them to social success;
others, like Tom's patients, into the arms of the police.
Border Crossing examines the causes and cures for violence without
diminishing the story's suspense. Barker has produced a first specimen of what we
might call the "social services procedural." It is a rich rewrite of the police
procedural, one of the classic subgenres of the detective novel, in which the
novelist renders the nitty-gritty details of police practice and we see how
detection is done. There, investigators, beat cops, pathologists, and laboratory
technicians all work together to catch a killer, and justice always remains on
the side of the pursuers. Here, in Border Crossing, Barker shows the
opposite: how the state can work to save a person, to release (rather than catch)
a human being.
A radically different cast of characters substitutes for the usual vengeful
prosecutors and dogged homicide detectives of crime fiction. The heroes are the
tough-but-sexy parole caseworker, the world-weary public defender, the female
nurses and paramedic, policemen, reformatory teachers, and, of course, Tom
himself, the brilliant state psychologist. To describe the book as a tale of
public servants risks making it sound like some sort of government apologia or
"inspirational" novel, depriving it of its depth. But not to catalog the
reversals puts the reader in jeopardy of missing them entirely. The characters
are so natural, the drama so forceful, that we can forget that Barker is
consciously constructing a political alternative to the detective novel. She puts
together a cast of heroes who reward the traditional desires for suspense,
character development, and teamwork but inhabit a public realm where the brave
know how to care rather than punish.
In 1938 the novelist Virginia Woolf completed the political tract Three
Guineas. Even today, it is the least loved of her major writings; upon its
publication, it was anathema. Woolf had already argued for feminist equality and
recognition of women's contributions in the genteel Room of One's Own;
with Three Guineas, her message became more urgent. Facing the threat of
Adolf Hitler abroad and Oswald Mosely's uniformed paramilitaries in England, she
saw the real enemy literally "at home." Masculine impulses to war, any war, and
to the oppression of women were identical. What was denounced as fascism in
Europe was hailed as good order in the English household. Men believed wars would
save civilization, but their civilization was a mask for tyranny. A feminist
analysis required the analyzing of men.
This goes some way toward explaining why what may be the most important
feminist novels of the 1990s, the Regeneration trilogy, are almost
entirely about men. Women figure into the narratives as dissenters, realists,
workers, lovers--as powerful characters. But it isn't primarily women, after all,
who have to change. Virginia Woolf had praised just one male figure in Three
Guineas for escaping the taint of maleness--Wilfred Owen, the young doomed
poet and soldier. Wilfred Owen, appropriately, begins Barker's historical
Regeneration trilogy, as he undergoes treatment for war trauma at a mental
hospital in Scotland. Barker's books can be seen as an extension of Woolf's final
project--performing a kind of therapy on male culture.
Craiglockhart War Hospital, the setting of Regeneration, happens to
be the workplace of the neurologist William Rivers, the real-life humane father
figure of the trilogy. His perverse assignment from the War Department is to
prepare shell-shock victims to return to the front. Wilfred Owen becomes his
patient, as does the soldier, author, and antiwar dissenter Siegfried Sassoon.
But Barker reserves her greatest attention for a cast of fictional young men who
fill out the portrait of a society where male codes have broken open. One among
them, Billy Prior, emerges as a hero: a bisexual rebel, both working-class and an
officer, a brave soldier and an acquaintance of pacifists who crisscrosses the
border between worlds.
The trilogy shows what it would be like to think through the contradictions of
male power by living them in a time of heightened exposure. Its picture of
World War I reveals men who are briefly rendered helpless--trapped in trenches,
exhibiting hysteria, taught to form loving domestic bonds with one another. It
details women who are partly freed from home--entering munitions factories,
grasping at independence, seeking temporary partners among doomed young men. The
mobilization of England for war provokes a crisis of gender, sex, and loyalty. In
The Eye in the Door, Billy Prior seeks the informant who landed his old
pacifist friends in prison and unconsciously becomes an agent of their
persecution. Women on the home front suffer the indignities of the "voluntary
police," made up of other women. Homosexual London confronts fierce repression.
All begin to internalize the "eye" of power; they spy on themselves.
Antiwar, Barker surely was; but from the trilogy's first pages, she explicitly
rewrote earlier generations of antiwar literature, by Ernest Hemingway, Dalton
Trumbo, or Wilfred Owen himself. Hemingway had already turned the hospital into
the scene of war, for example, in A Farewell to Arms--an innovation that
television viewers later saw banalized on M*A*S*H. In these hospital
narratives, grand historical conflicts devolved into private tragedies.
Characters withdrew to a private world of heterosexual romance or basic pleasures
or simple refusal. War was pointless or mad. "War is hell" became a principle as
comfortable as any moral from Aesop.
Barker's characters, crucially, can't just withdraw. Society will not allow
her outsiders and nonconformists to negotiate any separate peace. They travel
through an iron world of law and manners with a grim double-consciousness.
Barker's World War I isn't an aberration in society, a purposeless wound on the
body social; it manifests and exploits the essential, in-built brutalities of
English society, uncovering what ordinarily is hidden. Her gay heroes express
themselves at their peril and play it straight to survive. Her soldiers, who hate
the war more than anyone, return to their comrades at the front. Her pacifists
either endure or join hopeless plots to fight the orders of the state.
This surely is the characteristic Barker approach, to explore the public in
the private, and then--always, irresistibly--to return to public commitments.
George Orwell is her closest relative in the English literary tradition in this
respect. At the trilogy's end, The Ghost Road asks for a rebirth of social
principles. "It was almost easier now," Dr. Rivers declares, "to ask a man about
his private life than to ask what beliefs he lived by." If society had been
opened up like one of the bomb-gouged grand houses of London, it needed to be put
back together again.
The uniqueness of Pat Barker is her ability to recast the most familiar
stories as urgent and political. By taking up literary forms we think we know,
turning them upside down, and somehow righting them again, Pat Barker keeps the
task of rebuilding alive within an edifice shaken by critique. Since the trilogy
was published, Barker has been asking questions about the tenets men and women
live by today. In Another World (1998), she juxtaposed a composite family
of the latest vintage--complete with divorces, remarriages, stepchildren, and
kids born out of wedlock--with a grotesque painting of a Victorian clan that
uncomfortably resembled it. The painting's subjects, previous inhabitants of the
modern family's house, destroyed themselves in a scandal of repressed passions,
hatred, and crime. Using the ghost story as a template for asking how the
contemporary family is haunted by its past, Barker found both hope and caution in
today's principles--approving the new family's freedoms but concerned with the
precise ways it fragments.
The principles most at stake in Border Crossing are the liberal belief
in rehabilitation and in what is called "moral perception"-- this latter topic is
the subject on which Tom Seymour is writing a book. Since the children in his
studies somehow fail to acknowledge a distinction between right and wrong, the
temptation is to wonder if they are permanently defective, blind to what others
see. Or, as Tom witnesses every day, are there inconsistencies in society's
morality that threaten a child reared in the wrong place--in a slum, an abusive
home, a "warrior" society?
As it emerges in the sessions, Danny's past suggests the limits of
explanation. At 10 years of age, the boy committed murder. Nothing in his
childhood could fully explain the act. If he was abused--well, as Danny himself
says, "I'm determined I'm not going to say, 'I was abused, therefore ...' Because
it's not as easy as that." But the abuse set the stage for violence. A life of
grinding misery on a chicken farm, regular beatings--these were the facts of the
young boy's childhood. So was the horrific role model of Danny's brutal father, a
veteran of army service in Northern Ireland and the Falklands who reared his son
on grim stories of slaughtering the enemy, killing for England. The boy's past
widens the meaning of his crime without excusing it.
Just as the psychological sessions between Tom and Danny will seem familiar to
readers of the Regeneration trilogy ("Danny Miller" sounds suspiciously
like "Billy Prior," with Dr. Tom Seymour sitting in for Dr. William Rivers),
Barker's themes in Border Crossing extend from her earlier work. She
writes again about the social reproduction of violence. Maleness is still at
issue: Tom's role as Danny's psychiatrist is to create a nurturing relation and
fill in where Danny's murderous, masculinist father failed so badly. The scene in
which Danny is pulled from the mud of the Tyne is transparently one of rebirth.
But that Tom should be sexually unable, or secretly unwilling, to father a child
himself--the cause of his split with his wife, Lauren--shrouds this project of
new life in doubt. Must suspicion accompany the bringing of any child into the
world? Tom, for his part, has to decide about Danny's future in order to get
right with himself: to sustain his confidence that bad deeds can be contained and
redeemed, and also to make sure his own hand in Danny's childhood incarceration
didn't contribute to the damage.
The novel comes down to this question: Can Danny be saved? A liberal
conception of the criminal acknowledges nuanced connections among the person, the
society that produced him, and his wrong act. It's not simply that there are
"bad" people in the world who must be punished. Environment helps shape human
destiny; the individual is something more than his crime.
But the novel's complex take on bad deeds and a "bad" self also makes
successful rehabilitation--especially after the most brutal, baffling, and
unmotivated of crimes--that much harder to imagine. Once we abandon the idea that
sinners can be just "converted," as Barker's characters all have done, we're left
with the massive effort of re-creating a human being. So rehabilitation relies
not on miracles, but on a task that is always risky, a task that the
overstretched state may not be able to carry through. Plus, an imperfect society,
where the parolee returns to poverty and brutality, may never be a fit place for
rehabilitation to take root.
It is Danny, finally, who poses the question "Do you believe in evil?" to his
father figure near the end of the book. And Tom gives the expected answer:
"In the metaphysical sense? No, I don't. But as a word to describe
certain kinds of behaviour, I've no problems with it. It's just the word we've
agreed to use to describe certain kinds of action. And I don't think it's an
alternative to other ways of describing the same things. There's no logical
reason why 'mad' and 'bad' should be alternatives."
"And people? Do you think people can be evil?"
"I suppose if somebody's entire life is dedicated to performing evil actions,
yes. But if you mean yourself ... Killing Lizzie was an evil thing to do, but I
don't think you were evil when you did it, and I certainly don't think you are
There are evil acts, not evil people. This is the liberal line. And it
ought to be the correct one, the one a decent person should be obliged to
speak--at least given Tom's, or Barker's, or our own commitments to human
possibility and rehabilitation. But Border Crossing, it seems fair to say,
does believe in evil. That is, the novel acknowledges a point at which all
certainty stops. Why Danny's first 10 years should have led him to commit a
random murder, when the same environment would have left another child scarred
but socialized, will always be a mystery. Some fatality--beyond the combination
of surroundings and upbringing and temperament--closes its grip on certain
sufferers and not others. Some offenders can return to society and slip
gratefully into a new life, while others will be trapped in the past. Realizing
this is no source of comfort to those who nevertheless know to do the right
thing. Tom is left to remember, at the novel's end, that out of optimism,
responsibility, or foolishness, he has given in to the unknown and let Danny
loose on the world. Social hope walks a razor's edge in Pat Barker's books; she
wants us neither to be less hopeful nor more illusioned than we are.
Border Crossing is a masterly, lovely book. Barker's literary method
comes up through the popular novel, not down from the avant-garde. She uses a
plain style, prose that has an earth-tinted palette and captures the place of
human nature in crumbling cityscapes. The dirty Tyne, flowing among warehouses,
bedded in mud, is her setting for the human action of rescue. The cement and
barbed-wire structures of the prisons appear against a backdrop of ancient
standing stones and moors that dwarf all human vanity. What makes Barker so
exemplary, as a writer and as a social critic, is her ability to think both poles
of any situation at once--good and evil, male and female, the supposedly ugly and
the beautiful. Hers is the politics of serious thought. It's an impassioned
dispassionateness, a viewing of issues from every side. And one doesn't want to
let the fact that she is saying so much, so delicately, make it seem that she is
saying--politically--little definitive at all.