Composite Person

Alex Clark

  • Border Crossing by Pat Barker
    Viking, 216 pp, £16.99, April 2001, ISBN 0 670 87841 3

In the Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker distilled the trauma and drama of the First World War into a series of minutely observed pairings between the neurologist William Rivers and his severely shellshocked charges. The most famous of them is Siegfried Sassoon, who was sent to a psychiatric hospital after he issued a public declaration against the continuation of the war. But much more striking is Billy Prior, who advances stealthily through the trilogy, beginning as a mute casualty and ending as its central and most articulate character. His sexuality ambiguous, his attitude towards the authority of generals, doctors and civilians by turns contemptuous and reluctantly admiring, his motives a painful mixture of self-interest and dutiful rigour, Prior is Barker’s most compelling creation.

He is a borderline figure whose brooding, antagonistic sessions with Rivers reveal a mind so at odds with itself that at times his dissociation leads to episodes in which he doesn’t know where he is or what he is doing. And yet he retains, at some level, exceptional control: the ability to win people’s loyalty, to manipulate their responses, and then as they seem about to find him out, to drop his guard and display a discomfiting degree of vulnerability. That faltering charisma, expertly rendered, also serves to repel and attract the reader.

Danny Miller, the character at the heart of Border Crossing, is a direct descendant of Billy Prior, down to the inappropriately boyish name. Danny can no longer lay claim to that name, however. As a boy, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of an old woman, Lizzie Parks. Now out on parole he has been given a new identity and must adopt the bland persona of Ian Wilkinson, a 20-year-old English student.

Although Barker has left behind the vast historical rigging of Regeneration and its sequels – the preoccupations of the trilogy were still evident in her last novel, Another World – she has clearly drawn on real killings here. Border Crossing is concerned with the murdering child; with the conflicts, both rational and visceral, to establish culpability and responsibility; with the crowds seething around blacked-out police vans; with the bloodlust of the tabloids and with the stand-off between impulses towards punishment and rehabilitation. The victim is an elderly woman rather than a toddler captured on CCTV, but Barker’s exploration of the moral complexities is exactingly realistic.

Her prose style is often uninflected, without unnecessary adornment, but she doesn’t entirely avoid metaphor. From the outset, we know we are in dangerously marginal territory, a grey, depressed scene with little to lighten it. As the novel opens, a child psychologist called Tom Seymour is taking a riverside walk with his wife Lauren (this is less pleasant than it sounds: the walk is a frustrated bid to escape end-of-marriage bickering). The pathetic fallacy is in overdrive: ‘Clouds sagged over the river, and there was mist like a sweat over the mud flats . . . The colour was bleached out of houses and gardens.’ The characters are not exempt from the drab lassitude of their surroundings. Barker reinforces the link between their situation and setting: Tom tries to ignore Lauren’s voice which goes ‘on and on, as soft and insistent as the tides that, slapping against crumbling stone and rotting wood, worked bits of Newcastle loose’. Tom’s job depends on his ability to listen but all he wants is Lauren’s silence – his capacity for understanding and sympathy has been exhausted, because he is personally involved.

It seems as if nothing will break this stalemate, but then, suddenly, an external crisis jolts Tom and Lauren out of their inertia. As an opening gambit, this scene has something of the force of the balloon accident that begins Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, in which a dreamlike moment of action seems to suspend ordinary life and deliver those who witnessed it into a more dangerous and ungrounded reality. The hero of Enduring Love fails to prevent the accident, but Tom jumps into the freezing river and fishes out a young man. They had noticed him swallowing some pills before diving into the water. In rescuing him, Tom submerges himself not merely in the water’s ‘coffin of ice’, but in the undertow of his own past.

With the young man safely despatched to hospital, Lauren wonders whether they should ring for news, but Tom displays, for a professional carer, a puzzling lack of concern, or even curiosity: ‘We did what we could. It’s somebody else’s problem now.’ But he is forced into meeting when he realises that the would-be suicide has his coat, its pockets full of letters and keys. ‘Now, second by second, under the sharp bones and planes of the adult face, a child’s rounded, pre-pubescent features rose to the surface, and broke through, like a long-submerged body. “I’m sorry,” Tom said. “I didn’t even know you were out.”’ The adult face belongs to Ian Wilkinson; the child beneath is Danny Miller. Tom had been an expert witness at his trial ten years earlier; his testimony, based on a single assessment, was used in court to determine Danny’s fitness to stand trial for murder. His decision that Danny could be tried as an adult swung the jury against the child. Now, Danny/Ian demands that Tom resume the sessions, ostensibly to help him return to the past and excavate the truth.

For Barker, however, truth itself becomes the problem around which the novel is structured; that the truth is insufficient denies the novel any meaningful resolution. Barker doesn’t adjudicate between the competing versions offered by Danny, Tom or any of the other professionals called on for their memories, impressions and prejudices; the gaps in the narrative are allowed to stand witness to the inadequacy of explanations of inhuman acts.

There is a sense of dangerous collusion at the centre of the relationship between Tom and Danny that calls to mind the informal sessions between Billy Prior and William Rivers. There is a similar pattern of rules being broken and propriety breached: there are evening sessions, meetings at Tom’s home, ad hoc arrangements. Tom flinches at Danny’s lack of distance – ‘rape was too intimate a revelation for the first ten minutes of a relationship’ – but the peculiarly charged atmosphere between them is almost erotic in its tacit assumption of closeness. ‘Whenever I’ve imagined myself trying to talk about it,’ Danny tells Tom, ‘it’s always been with you.’

Danny’s justification for that intimacy stems from his first meeting with Tom, the assessment that decreed him adult rather than child, murderer rather than confused play-actor. Danny quickly hits on the paradox that is central to his ten or so years of rehabilitation. ‘You see the real question is: can people change? And all sorts of people whose jobs actually depend on a belief that people can change, social workers, probation officers, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, don’t really believe it at all.’ Tom argues that changing an individual’s environment will teach him ‘new tricks’ and that if they are good tricks, they will count as rehabilitation if the result is a life without evil actions. He insists that these new tricks are dormant responses awakened for the first time. But what happens, Danny presses, to the old tricks? What would happen if he returned to his original environment?

Yet rehabilitation is not the same thing as redemption, which is what Danny seeks and which is beyond Tom’s gift. As it emerges that the events at the river were carefully planned, that Danny sought Tom out, Danny’s rage against the professional appropriation of his life becomes clear. What he requires is something more elemental than pathology can offer: he needs to know if he is evil.

It is a question that Barker doesn’t claim to answer, although she suggests several possible replies. There are, on one side, the mitigating circumstances of Danny’s upbringing: his macho soldier father, for whom killing is sometimes justified, as long as the victim is outside his ‘moral circle’; the disintegration of his family; his downtrodden mother, who tries to beat him, for the first and only time, on the day before the murder. But, on the other side, Danny appears as a manipulative and calculating presence, intent on control for its own sake and terrifyingly aware of his own powers.

Tom canvasses the opinions of Danny’s previous carers and receives a welter of contradictory evidence. At the secure unit where Danny passed most of his sentence, the headmaster’s wife tells Tom that ‘Danny was a bottomless pit. He wanted other people to fill him, only in the process the other people ended up drained. Some people were, I don’t know, mesmerised by the process, and so they kept going back for more. Or rather they kept going back to give more.’ She points to the carers’ constant need to feel that they make a difference, and suggests that the ‘devilish’ Danny, who worked the system ‘like an otter’, fostered in his teachers the illusion that they had succeeded in his case, thus encouraging them to break the rules, to ‘step across that invisible border’. Danny is ‘a composite person’ who has an unstoppable urge to pillage other people’s lives in order to mask his own deficiency.

It’s a warning that Tom doesn’t take seriously until it’s far too late. He is unable to save his marriage and is in thrall to the parody of the therapeutic process that he and Danny have embarked on. He is at once ensnared by Danny’s descent into depression – hastened by the tabloid frenzy to discover his whereabouts when a murder similar to his original crime takes place – and repelled by what he slowly recognises as Danny’s aim: ‘But then Danny’s story, though Tom believed him to be telling the truth, most of the time, was not all it appeared to be. His apparently rambling excursions into the past were anything but rambling. He was constructing a systematic rebuttal of the evidence Tom had given in court.’ In this ceaselessly self-questioning and contradictory material, Barker argues two things. One is that, although the reasons for actions are frequently unknowable, even and possibly especially to the actor, actions as final and savage as murder demand that we find a reason and a pattern, compel us towards the moment when ‘we can’t wait to thread the black beads on a single string.’ But she also suggests that this compulsive need to understand is for our own benefit rather than that of the perpetrator or, particularly, the victim. In Border Crossing, the massed ranks of professionals are not just unable to understand motivations, but are half-seduced by the horrific and the unspeakable, convinced of their own talismanic power to transform and to neutralise danger. Through Tom, part committed helper and part cynical observer, we come to realise the value of equivocation and ambiguity. That Barker can grapple with such vast and unanswerable themes is evidence of her courage as a novelist. Border Crossing, like her previous novels, is written with a simplicity and openness that underlines its moral seriousness and its author’s commitment to an unsentimental examination of things as they are rather than how we would want them to be. As the novel closes, we are offered a little fillip: Tom reconstructs his life and even, in a moment of authorial kindness, finds love. As for Danny, he is cast adrift on the uncertain waters of another new identity.