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Pat(ricia) Barker Biography

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Nationality: British. Born: Thornaby-on-Tees, England, 1943. Education: LSE, B.Sc.1965. Career: Has taught further education. Awards: Fawcett prize, for Union Street; Booker Prize, 1995, for The Ghost Road. Agent: Curtis Brown Associates, 162-168 Regent Street, London W1R 5TA, England.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Union Street. London, Virago, 1982; New York, Putnam, 1983.

Blow Your House Down. London, Virago, and New York, Putnam, 1984.

The Century's Daughter. London, Virago, and New York, Putnam, 1986.

The Man Who Wasn't There. London, Virago, 1989; New York, Ballantine, 1990.

Regeneration. London, Viking, 1991; New York, Dutton, 1992.

The Eye in the Door. London, Viking, 1993; New York, Dutton, 1994.

The Ghost Road. London, Viking, 1995; Boston, Compass, 1995.

The Regeneration Trilogy. London, Viking, 1996.

Another World. London, Viking, 1998; New York, Farrar, Straus, andGiroux, 1999.

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Film Adaptation:

Stanley and Iris, from the novel Union Street.

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Union Street was Pat Barker's first novel, and at once marked her as a powerful voice in objective realism. She had tried writing middle-class fiction but was encouraged by Angela Carter to write of her own working-class roots. Set in an unnamed northern England industrial town, Union Street consists of seven interlinked stories, each named after a working-class woman. These form a graphic account, in their own idiom, of women whose lives are circumscribed by poverty and violence. The first chapter, which is the longest, describes a childhood typically shared by the older characters, describing circumstances that account for their attitudes as adults. Kelly Brown, an intelligent 11-year-old, is hardly cared for by her mother, who has been abandoned by her husband. Playing truant, Kelly roams the streets at night, and on one such occasion she is raped. This she conceals from her mother, and in the end, determined not to be defeated, she is even more strongly compelled to wander alone. Barker treats Kelly entirely sympathetically, so that when the girl vandalizes a middle-class house and her own school, the reader feels compassion rather than disgust at her actions. She encounters an old woman in a park who has chosen to abandon her house to avoid being put in an old people's home. The woman will die in the cold, and this experience encourages Kelly to return to her mother.

The speech patterns of the characters are authentically northern English working-class, and the story of Union Street reveals bigotry caused by ignorance, overt racism, unwanted pregnancies, and a close society united and also torn apart by appalling social conditions. Running like a thread through all the chapters is the strong Iris King, whose capable way of organizing her own life while helping others provides hope in the midst of misery. The novel, which is cyclical, ends with the story of Alice Brown, a confused, senile woman who believes that nineteenth-century workhouses still exist, and has saved against the indignity of a pauper's funeral. In doing so she is half-starved, and even after a severe stroke she refuses to go to a home. Knowing she will be forcibly moved and not allowed to end her days in her own house, she decides to die in the open. She is the woman Kelly met at the beginning of the novel, and Alice's reflections of her own past emphasize the unchanging patterns of life.

Barker's skill was confirmed by her Blow Your House Down, a fictional reconstruction of prostitution and a Yorkshire Ripper prototype. More successful was The Century's Daughter, which covers a period of 80 years and has a large cast of characters, some of whom might have strayed from Union Street. In a sense a fictional history of the century, the most poignant section is about the sufferings of men in the trenches of World War I and the effect their deaths have on their families. It was a subject that fascinated Barker, and one which she made her own in a trilogy about the Great War.

The fictional treatment of World War I was the domain of the male writer until Susan Hill broke new ground with Strange Meeting. Barker's Regeneration trilogy—comprised of Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road—uses a mixture of fiction and facts about W. H. R. Rivers, an army doctor, and his shell-shocked patients at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. The patients, who have to be cured before they are sent back to the front—probably to be killed—include several familiar names, in particular Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. There is also William Prior, a completely fictional creation who appears in all three novels.

Regeneration—the regeneration of nerves, that is—examines in microscopic detail the horrific mental disorders caused by trench warfare. Much of the historical detail is already familiar, but Barker gives it a new perspective by providing a background to the soldier's lives. Prior's mental disturbance is exacerbated by his past relationship with his violent father; his reversion as an adult to his childhood ways of escape by "changing" to another personality is a persistent theme in the series. Originally working-class but now an army officer, he is what the middle and upper classes snobbishly label as a "temporary gentleman."

He is, however, acceptable for sex, and the second novel opens with a gay sex scene between him and an upper-class officer, whose hidebound class consciousness will gradually be eroded. Barker expands on the facts of a genuine cause célèbre of a female pacifist wrongly imprisoned on trumped-up evidence she was plotting to kill Lloyd George. Her version of this real character is called Beattie Roper, and Beattie tests the loyalties of Prior, the intelligence officer called in to question her. It so happens she is his lifelong friend, and thus he finds himself on the one hand wanting to prove evidence against an agent provocateur in order to help her, and on the other hand pulled by his own strongly nonpacifist convictions.

Another figure in The Eye in the Door is a lunatic who sets out to expose homosexuals, libeling an actress by implying that she is a lesbian, and attempting to nail an M.P. for the same crime. All the characters feel watched, by conscience or under suspicion, and the "eye in the door" is the glass in a cell through which the inmate is constantly scrutinized. Implicit in the entire series, however, is the eye of the author scrutinizing her own society, an idea that becomes more apparent in The Ghost Road. As Prior returns to the front, newly patched up by Rivers and on his way to new horrors—horrors that seem particularly absurd in light of the fact that the war is drawing to a close—Rivers thinks back on his earlier work among the headhunters of Melanesia. The same British Empire now engaged in acts of wholesale slaughter on the battlefields of France, it seems, had earlier outlawed headhunting among the natives of its colony. Barker presents these two facts with a minimum of comment, thus only serving to heighten the topsy-turvy moral landscape of her characters' world.

—Geoffrey Elborn

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