Thursday, 6 October 2011
Another World - Pat Barker
This book would make a great Graphic Novel. It is full of arresting and immediate images that are central to the plot and repeated visual motifs. It is the story of a family; psychology professor Nick and his daughter Miranda, Nick's partner Fran and her son Gareth, Nick and Fran's "shared children": Jasper and his unborn sibling; and Nick's Grandfather Geordie.
The books masterfully builds a feeling of awful anticipation and a vertiginous sense of the anxieties of modern life: "like everyone else he lives in the shadows of monstrosities. Peter Sutcliffe's bearded face, the number plate of a house in Cromwell Street, three figures smudged on a video surveillance screen, an older boy taking a toddler by the hand while his companion strides ahead, eager for the atrocity to come."
One of the central scenes is where the dysfunctional family at the centre of the book get together to remove the wallpaper from the dining room of the old house they have recently moved into. Underneath the wallpaper they reveal a painting of the Fanshawes, a "Victorian paterfamilias, wife and children: two sons, a daughter. Pinned out exhibited." "Silence. The living stand and gaze at the dead. Probably the same thought occurs to all of them, but it's Miranda, her voice edging up into hysteria, who finally says what they're all thinking. 'It's us.'" The painting has some strange elements and seethes with tension.
The picture behind the wallpaper is representative of the movement of the book as a whole. It is as if there are things lurking behind everything that we see. Nick finds that terrible things happened in the Fanshawe family but keeps it to himself. Will history repeat itself?
Geordie is 101 and riddled with cancer. As he approaches death it seems that the horror of the First World War, in which his brother died, is coming closer and closer. The nightmares which made his life a misery in the aftermath of the War seem to have returned. He is literally 'in' his memories as if that time had a gravity that was pulling him back. Or is there a guilty secret in his past?
Gareth doesn't like their new house, mainly because the school he will be going to is in the middle of an area which is a warzone itself, full of "kids who nick off from school and shove petrol soaked rags through the letter-boxes of empty houses and drop matches on them. And the they call the fire brigade and stone them, and when the police come out to protect the firemen they stone the police too." He loses himself in violent video games and a maelstrom of frustration and fear brews behind the closed doors of his bedroom. An incident where he ends up being called 'Skid marks' looks likely to drive him over the edge.
Miranda has come to stay because her mum, Nick's ex wife, has been "sectioned." She refuses to talk about her Mum and is very cool towards Fran, who she partly blames for splitting up her parents. Nick feels that she may be justified in not sharing with him. After all, when he moved out she "realized that while she was in it for life, he was merely in it for the duration of the marriage."
Fran is coming apart at the seams, lack of sleep due to Jasper teething and waking her during the night, pregnancy, the pressure of Gareth's anti-social tendencies and Nick's absences to care for his Grandfather are all conspiring to wear her down.
It is as if the horrors of both past and present are making a classic pincer movement. Will they survive in one piece?
This was a book I didn't want to put down. It's a gripping, intelligent and satisfying read with a powerful emotional punch.