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Dinah Birch

  • The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker
    Viking, 280 pp, £14.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 670 84414 4

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 of deprivation among the back streets was an intense imaginative inwardness. The lives she recounted were haunted, not only by the shared grind of poverty, but by private images of loss and love. There was a political edge to those novels, emerging as they did from the feminist Left, but what drove them was a long engagement with moments of vision, bleakly Wordsworthian spots of time that recur again and again in her fiction. Barker’s first four books had a cumulative force, shaping histories of obsession out of the hardships of oppression. The people she spoke for had an intimate particularity that tested the limits of political analysis. Their fantasies had the insistence, and often the violence, of a lived nightmare. Images of the body imprint themselves remorselessly on the minds of her characters, and her readers: the sputum and blood erupting from a dying man, the putrescent body of the murdered prostitute, the aborted foetus of the unmarried teenager. ‘She banished the image which always, in her rare moments of silence and solitude, returned to haunt her.’ Much of Barker’s fiction is involved with that attempted exorcism.

This self-reflectiveness carried with it the hazard of repetition, and Regeneration, published in 1991, consciously broke a compulsive pattern. It was a historical novel, based on the work of the Army psychologist W.H.R. Rivers, who treated Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart Hospital in 1917. The political burden of the fiction is explicit. This is the story of Sassoon’s rebellion against the continuation of the war, and of the process which eventually persuaded him back to the trenches in France. But the change in direction was not as radical as this new choice of subject might suggest. Barker has consistently written about the inheritance of suffering and endurance, and the impact of war had already emerged as one of her central preoccupations. Rivers’s mode of treatment for shell-shocked soldiers mirrors her method as a novelist: corrosive memories must be confronted if health is to be restored. The attempt to deny the trauma imposed by trench warfare is what pushes Rivers’s patients into insanity. The culture that instigated the warfare also attempted to deny its consequences: madness was the result there, too. Rivers, rather than Sassoon, emerges as the moral pivot of Regeneration, as he feels his way towards a larger understanding of the reasons for his patients’ misery. Unspoken but persistently present in the novel is the fact that Rivers was about to stand for Parliament as an independent Labour candidate at the time of his death shortly after the war.

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