By Pat Barker
Farrar Straus Giroux. 278 pp. $24
In present-day England, Nick, a mildly intelligent, ordinary man, struggles with the depressing heritage of his country's past. Much of his homeland has become a disreputable shambles: "floorboards in the middle of the road, broken glass, burnt-out cars, charred houses with huge holes in the wall as if they've been hit by artillery shells." This part of his city used to be dominated by an enormous armaments factory; now, it's as if England has declared war upon itself. Can it be true that its ferocious past has the power to destroy its present?
Everything in this author's world presents itself as tainted, foul. When Nick simply goes to pick up his preteen daughter, Miranda, from a train station so that she can spend the summer with him, he perceives that station as Hell: "A smell of hot bodies, bloom of sweat on pale skins, like the sheen on rotten meat." He's both trapped in the exigencies of flesh in the here and now, and haunted by that ineffable, unspeakable past.
In creating Nick's family, Pat Barker hasn't stinted on revolting details. His first wife is spending the summer in the madhouse, where a cruel sun picks out her every wrinkle and gray hair. His current wife, Fran, having given birth two years before to their first child, Jasper--prone to vomiting and "pungent" diarrhea--is heavily, grossly pregnant with another. Fran also brings to this family a full-on sociopathic son from a previous affair, Gareth, who's fond of watching "Terminator" movies, compulsively flossing his teeth and running his stepfather's toothbrush around under the rim of the underwashed, overused family toilet.
What is life, looked at closely, the author seems to ask, but a leakage of bodily fluids over fairly long duration? If Jasper has a full diaper, soon that excrement will spread across the room, as inexorably as the Red Sea. Fran's breasts are "engorged" and "repellent," but she leaks tears as much as milk. When there is a pile of vomit on a chair (why is there a pile of vomit on a chair, some readers might ask), Nick will be bound to sit in it. Nick and Fran are full of bickering and recrimination and incompetence. They sweat and belch and weep and seem unable to handle the simplest errand or most ordinary meal. Little Jasper is whining and unattractive; Miranda is distant, terrified and emotionally frail; and of course Gareth is a murderer-in-training.
They've moved into a bigger house, to make a new start. And in the course of halfheartedly scraping hideous wallpaper off the living room, they find a fearsome Victorian family mural: a scowling paterfamilias (with an exposed, disgusting penis), a put-upon wife with those by-now familiar "engorged" breasts, two sinister pre-adolescents and a 2-year-old boy. "It's us," the horrified Miranda breathes, but her stepmother says, "No it isn't . . . she's not pregnant."
This is a small, spare novel, precisely written, where every sentence may be presumed to carry a larger meaning. The people in the mural once owned the aforementioned armaments factory; their money came from dreadful, institutionalized violence, but violence infected their own family: The two sinister pre-adolescents murdered their younger brother. The older son died later in the war: Savagery has eaten them up, literally stopped their generation, as World War I did for so much of England. Will Nick's family--emblematic of "ordinary" England--ever be able to escape this history? Fran, after all, is pregnant, and her 2-year-old is still alive. They have at least a theoretical chance.
The family is haunted in two ways by specters of the past. A fairly standard young girl-ghost peers out of windows, sneaks up on Gareth, stands out in the middle of the road so that Nick can run over her with a car. She's there, she's the past, she won't leave.
But a far more potent reminder of the past is Nick's grandfather, Geordie, a 101-year-old veteran of the Great War who's dying, finally, of cancer.
The horrors of that conflict have come back to Geordie. For years he has fought, in every way he can, against his own terrible memories. He was an early victim of shell shock, then somehow put together a family, lived to a venerable old age and spent his recent years giving speeches to the effect that if a war like that--senseless, useless, savage in the extreme--could happen once, it can happen yet again. It's not as though humans could have changed their character in a scant 85 years.
Geordie pours out his fear and guilt to Helen (an oral historian who seems to have walked in from another novel; she doesn't excrete, drool, vomit, sweat or make horrid emotional scenes, and she raises an interesting question: If she can live without squishing all the time, why can't some of the rest of these characters?).
Grandpa Geordie eventually dies in every variety of sloppy, long-drawn-out physical agony, but when his last words turn out to be "I am in hell," it's not the physical aspect of things that tortures him.
"Another World" examines "the power of old wounds to leak into the present." Are we doomed to forever be cursed by the power of our violent past, or can we reinvent a reasonable present, a decent future? Will sociopathic thugs like Gareth be able to "get away with" murdering innocent babies like Jasper, or will people like Nick and Fran and Miranda start paying attention enough to prevent it? These are the questions this accomplished novelist asks, but it seems to me that the best news the author can give us is that we'll be lucky to break even.
Carolyn See, whose reviews appear in Style on Fridays.
UPCOMING IN BOOK WORLD
The following books are scheduled to be reviewed in Style next week:
* THE HOLOCAUST: A German Historian Examines the Genocide, by Wolfgang Benz. Reviewed by Deborah E. Lipstadt.
* HADRIAN'S WALLS, by Robert Draper. A novel about friendship, betrayal and retribution set in Texas. Reviewed by Wendy Law-Yone.
* WASN'T THE GRASS GREENER? A Curmudgeon's Fond Memories, by Barbara Holland. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.
* THE INTUITIONIST, by Colson Whitehead. This highly original first novel focuses on an African American elevator operator and her philosophical understanding of technology. Reviewed by Brian Gilmore.
* BUCKET OF TONGUES, by Duncan McLean. A collection of short stories about grim times in modern Scotland. Reviewed by Carolyn See.