It was William Faulkner who said, "The past isn't over. It isn't even past." Now Pat Barker says it again in "Another World," her first novel since her great World War I trilogy, "Regeneration." She says it literally ("Geordie's past isn't over. It isn't even the past"), without even crediting Faulkner, which is kind of cheeky. But she also demonstrates it, using her characters to drive the point home.
Nick, her protagonist, is entrapped in the past in numerous ways. In his second marriage, to Fran, he is dealing with the consequences of his and Fran's first marriages, each of which produced one child: Fran's son, Gareth, who lives with them and is showing signs of being seriously disturbed; and Nick's daughter, Miranda, who as the story begins is coming to stay with them indefinitely. The house the family has just moved into soon reveals itself, through a mural uncovered while stripping wallpaper, to have been the site of another family's tragedy and possibly of a horrific crime. Finally, Nick loves and feels responsible for his dying grandfather, Geordie, who brought him up.
"Another World" would seem to be a radical shift of focus from "Regeneration," but there is a World War I connection: Geordie insists he is dying not of cancer but of the bayonet wound he suffered in that war. Hounded by some awful memory, he is thrown back onto the battlefield in his dreams every night. When he confesses to having killed his own brother during a battle, Nick is sure his grandfather has become delusional, and yet he can't help wondering if it might be true.
These three main elements -- Nick's second marriage and all its complicated step-relationships; the sordid, secret history (complete with ghosts) of Nick's new home; and the dying Geordie and his confession -- all illustrate Barker's point, but they are otherwise unconnected except through Nick. Unfortunately, that isn't always enough. Early on, for instance, Nick decides not to divulge the story of the house's previous occupants to his family. Eventually it fades away, a lost narrative thread that has never quite worked its way into the fabric of the plot.
Barker's strength, as usual, is in her perfectly calibrated dialogue, as here, in a conversation Gareth initiates with Miranda:
"Are you going to be here all summer?"
"I don't know."
"Mum doesn't want you here."
"That's all right, I don't want to be here."
"So why are you?"
"My mother's ill. She's in hospital."
"What sort of ill?"
Gareth hesitates, unaware of his ground. "You don't go into hospital with that."
"That's all you know."
"She's in the bin."
"Hospital," Miranda repeats steadily.
Barker's work is always interesting, and this novel is no exception. Each of the parallel stories is absorbing, and most of the characters -- particularly Nick, Geordie and the children -- are skillfully drawn. Still, some overriding connection seems missing, and in the end, the book is smaller than the sum of its parts.