"Double Vision" by Pat Barker

A war correspondent, an injured widow, the vicar's daughter and a mysterious cross-dresser haunt this memorable tale of rural England and the ghosts of violence.

Published December 18, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

A handful of people living in the countryside in the north of England might seem like a subject for a quiet novel, but when the author is Pat Barker -- Britain's foremost excavator of the human cost of war -- quiet is not what you get. There's a tradition of English village novels in which decent people struggle with a series of choices and challenges, usually involving infidelity and religious faith, and eventually find a way of muddling through. It is all quite manageable. Barker's "Double Vision" is not such a book. A threatening pulse beats under its tweedy surface, and as the action rolls along, the tension grows unexpectedly urgent.

Stephen Sharkey, a foreign correspondent, has quit his job to write a book about "ways of representing war," a topic with which he is painfully familiar. He seeks refuge in a cottage owned by his brother near the Scottish border, where, he believes, "nobody had died ... or only in their beds of sickness or old age. No violent deaths since the union of England and Scotland." He suffers from nightmares, most often about the corpse of a young rape victim he discovered in a building in Sarajevo, though he has plenty of grisly memories to choose from. Not far away lives Kate Frobisher, a sculptor and the widow of a colleague of Stephen's, a photographer who was killed by a sniper in Afghanistan in 2002.

Stephen tumbles into an unlikely but invigorating affair with Justine, a 17-year-old daughter of the local vicar. Kate, recovering from a bad auto accident, hires Peter, a young man, as her studio assistant, on the vicar's recommendation. It turns out that Peter is Justine's ex-boyfriend, and that his past is somewhat mysterious. So is his present, as Kate discovers when she spies him dressed in her clothes and mimicking her gestures in her studio in the middle of the night.

Barker is best known for her Booker Prize-winning "Regeneration" trilogy, three novels about the aftermath of World War I, a conflict that killed, crippled and traumatized a generation of young Englishmen. Stephen, although a noncombatant, is a counterpart of those men, unsure if he's fit to rejoin ordinary society and questioning the worth of the profession he has left. Was he bearing witness to the unbearable or catering to voyeurs and propagandists? He and Kate discuss Goya's famous motto for his war engravings -- "One cannot look at this. I saw it. This is the truth" -- and Stephen recalls a conversation he had with Kate's husband after Sept. 11. "We can't escape from the need for a visual record," the photographer said. "The appetite for spectacle. And they've used that against us, just as they've used our own technology against us."

"Double Vision" is only tangentially a "Sept. 11 novel," but the condition it speaks to, that reeling disorientation that comes after the destruction of an illusory safety, is the essence of post-Sept. 11 life. Even the English countryside, a place that has defined sanctuary and security for the British for ages, is harrowed here, the ashes of burnt animal carcasses left over from the hoof-and-mouth disease crisis still visible in the fields.

Violence, says Barker, is indivisible from human nature, from nature itself. (Stephen and Justine, visiting an island preserve, get dive-bombed by terns protecting their nests, described in a way that echoes Tennyson's "nature red in tooth and claw.") Considering oneself immune is the worst folly. Of the vicar, Kate thinks: "He did tend to assume that in the great war of good and evil he'd always be on the right side, whereas Kate couldn't help thinking real adult life starts when you admit the other possibility."

The question is not how to escape violence, since that's only a matter of luck, but how to survive it, how to regenerate. This is an enormous matter for this solidly built and thoughtful novel to carry, but it holds up. There are decent characters here, but there is someone else, too. In a perfect metaphor, Kate thinks of a syndrome found among Arctic explorers, in which the men become convinced that there is one additional member of the expedition who can never be counted. That character is not at all manageable, and telling his story is what Barker does best.

-- Laura Miller

By Salon Staff

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