Pat Barker is normally a very erudite author who puts in a lot of research for her books and is best known for her Regeneration trilogy set in the First World War. The first book of hers I read was Another World and then Border Crossing, a novel that I found quite harrowing but enormously readable. So I was quite pleased to pick up this book in a charity shop for £1.00 thinking it would be a good read.
There are several strands to the plot although the blurb concentrates on one in particular. Stephen Sharkey has been a war correspondent and traveled widely covering some of man's worst inhumanity to others. After the death of his photographer friend, Ben, in Afghanistan he returns to England hoping to find redemption by writing a book about how war is perceived. He is fortunate to have a retreat in the form of a cottage set in the grounds of his brother, Robert's country house just outside Newcastle. Robert is a doctor and a researcher whose marriage to wife, Beth is going through a difficult period.
Stephen knows about this alienation, his own marriage has broken down, but Robert has a nine-year-old son Adam who has Aspersers Syndrome and needs stability. He is currently being looked after by nineteen-year-old Justine, a young woman whose college place is postponed due to her having glandular fever. Daughter of the local vicar, Alec, she is everything Stephen would hope to have in his life but he thinks he is too old and worldly-wise for her.
To add to the co-incidences, Ben's widow Kate Frobisher lives in a converted farm nearby. At the start of the book she has a serious accident, which puts her work as a sculptor on hold, despite having a commission to make a large statue of Christ to work on. She finds help with this through a jobbing gardener, Peter Wingrave who isn't quite what he initially seems to be. This large cast of characters, all with their own personal problems drives the story almost completely.
Pat Barker writes some compelling characters that have all faced some personal grief in their lives. Her characters are never dull and in Double Vision is sometimes seems there should be some dull characters to level the playing field. Somehow one wonders how much co-incidence is acceptable but then again, surely this should give the book an extra depth of meaning?
After all, there's a grieving widow who's accident puts her at the mercy of helpful friends, just when she is struggling to live without Ben. There should also be some empathy between her and Stephen, especially since he was the last person to see Ben alive. Stephen himself is the main character and, as such, does a fairly good job as the hard-bitten ex-journalist, though I did expect romance to blossom with the wrong person. Instead he pursues Justine, leaving the reader wondering whether any man with such a tragic background would set out to seduce a young woman under the protection of his brother's roof?
There are some nicely written sideline characters who add some humour and also some suspense, but somehow the promise of her characters never live up to there potential. It's almost as if Barker has taken too many characters and given them huge obstacles to over-come to make up for the lack of plot. Despite the amount I've written on plot I've given little away.
Once again I expected something more given the setting of the book and the time it was written about. Stephen has just returned from an Afghanistan ravaged by the repercussions of the aftermath of 9/11. There are some harrowing scenes of the victims of war, both in Afghanistan and in Sarajevo where Stephen and Ben covered the action between them. One particular incident reverberates throughout the narrative, bringing in the question of whether war has been too sanitized for the viewer who sees the events of 9/11 and the subsequent aerial bombing of Afghanistan at one remove.
Barker is interested in the psychology of people and their actions, returning to these themes time and time again, but what should prove fascinating just fizzles out, leaving me wondering if I could have done better myself. The promise here is tremendous, the prose should be riveting, the reader should shudder with tension, but it all flops as dead as the road kill in the book.
The England Stephen returns to is not peaceful either. Barker places this in the terrible days of the foot and mouth crisis of 2002/3 with carcasses of dead animals in smoking heaps littering the landscape. I remember driving through the country and feeling both hurt and outrage at the waste of life, the misery of farmers and the losses of simple things such as walking down a country path. The potential for wringing out every drop of emotion is wasted, as is the main plot.
I was really disappointed by this book. It should have been so much better. There are some good moments but the book never rises above the mundane, leaving the reader unsatisfied with the outcome. The author even attended the opening of the trial of Milosevic, giving rise to Stephen's similar attendance in the book. This should have thrummed with meaning, how could it not be a haunting part of the book, especially since it gave rise in some ways to the books title?
I think Barker has tried too hard and instead comes over as pretentious, something I would never have expected from her. The frontispiece has a quote from Goya that is used in the book.' No se puede mirar. One cannot look at this. Yo lo vi. I saw it. Esto es lo verdadero. This is the truth.' I wonder if the author truly believes this, somehow I doubt it.
It's still worth a read, if anything for the experience of reading a good plot go to waste. I wish I could have enjoyed it more and salvaged something from the ashes, sadly I didn't.
I paid £1 for my copy; this is widely available on Amazon and e-bay for much the same.
©Lisa Fuller 2011.