Monday, August 23, 2010

Ghost Road, by Pat Barker

Murder was only killing in the wrong place.” So reflects Rivers, the therapist who is a central character in all three of the novels in Pat Barker’s incredible World War I trilogy. Ghost Road is the third of the trilogy, and the one for which she received The Booker Prize, though Regeneration, the first in the series, was shortlisted for the prize and any one of the three would have deserved the prestigious award.

This is not a glorification of war book. Instead, it talks of the war and the battlefield in graphic and horrible detail that shows the bravery of the men who fought, but also the corruption of the British class system and the money interests of big business, especially as the war drags on long after if should have with men dying not to secure the victory, but to line the pockets of business men who are more interested in profits than the lives of soldiers.

Many of the characters in the novel, including the therapist Rivers, are drawn from actual historical figures. In fact, this novel actually moves back and forth between the battlefront, the hospital where Rivers treats both the physically and psychologically wounded, and cultures in the south seas where Rivers spent time as researcher and doctor before the war started. The so-called tribes he dealt with were descendants of head-hunting people and both the heads brought home from raids and the captives brought back from those same raids played pivotal roles in their cultural lives.
Head-hunting had to be banned, and yet the effects of banning it were everywhere apparent in the listlessness and lethargy of the people’s lives. Head-hunting was what they had lived for. Though it might seem callous or frivolous to say so, head-hunting had been the most tremendous fun and without it life lost almost all zest.
It is no accident that Barker compares the head-hunters with atrocities of the war. While we may excuse the actions of the warriors in World War I while condemning as barbaric the head-hunters, Barker is less quick to judge.

As you might guess, this is not a happy book, but then none of Barker’s books is happy. Just as her earlier novels focused in on blue-collar workers and their struggles for a decent life given the brutality of market economies, so too in this one she focuses not on officers but on enlisted men who have everything to lose in fighting the war, and yet very little to gain by its so-called successful conclusion.

Besides the sadness of the events, the grimness of the novel is accentuated by Barker’s  simple and often harsh prose. Billy Prior, who is another genuine historical character who appears in all three of the novels, is unashamedly bisexual. Many of the sex scenes she describes are cold and repelling, and yet there is honesty in her prose that shines forth. Like the prostitutes who are the focus of her second novel, Blow Your House Down, there is nothing sentimental about Prior’s descriptions of his sexual relationships with either men or women; sex is simply a part of life, sometimes bartered, sometimes given as a gift, sometimes taken on the fly.

For this reader, both this novel and Regeneration were most interesting because of the accounts of the varied and horrific sorts of physic conditions suffered in the trench warfare of World War I, and the surprisingly compassionate care William Rivers gives to the men whom he encounters at Craiglockhart’s, the British hospital where the wounded are sent to be ‘fixed’ and sent back to the front. Of course, when Rivers succeeds, his charges are sent back to the French front, not because they are truly healed, but because they can, at least, talk again, or walk, or sleep without impossibly horrible dreams.
We are Craiglockhart’s success stories. Look at us. We don’t remember, we don’t feel, we don’t think—at least not beyond the confines of what’s needed to do the job. By any proper civilized standard (but what does that mean now) we are objects of horror. But our nerves are completely steady. And we are still alive.

…the bayonet work. Which I will not remember. Rivers would say, remember now—any suppressed memory stores up trouble for the future. Well, too bad. Refusing to think’s the only way I can survive and anyway what future?
Perhaps I have described this book too bleakly; there is warmth and even humor in it along with the chilling battle scenes. While I have to admit that I am ready to move onto something less intense, less troubling, this is a book all of us should read. Indeed, every book of Barker’s I have read has been well worth the time and effort. She is one of the finest writers alive.

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Monday, August 02, 2010

Love and Summer by William Trevor

I want to talk to you about an author who is new to me, though he may not be to you or to most avid readers. His name is William Trevor, and I want to talk about his 2009 novel Love and Summer. Trevor’s novel The Story of Lucy Gault was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2002; I intend to read that novel soon.

Everything about this little novel is understated. It is set in a small Irish town and the surrounding countryside, and is about as simple a story as one could imagine. It is as if the writer never raises his voice, never indulges in pathos, simply tells the story of a young orphan girl, Ellie, raised by nuns and, as was common practice, sent out as a servant to a small farm after a tragic accident left the owner of the farm both widowed and childless. Eventually, as the girl settles into the routines of the farm, Dillahan, the farmer whom she serves, asks her to marry him, and she does. “It was kindness—so it had seemed to her, and still did—when she had been offered marriage; it would have been unkind on her part if she’d said no.

Quite by accident, Ellie runs into a stranger to the small town, a photographer, Florian Kilderry, who is himself an orphan, though his artist parents died when he was already grown. For a married woman even to be seen in the presence of an unmarried man, and a stranger no less, is quite out of the ordinary. But Ellie cannot help the rush of infatuation she feels for this man so much closer to her age than the older farmer whom she has married. Florian is in the process of selling the house and land he has inherited from his parents (and cannot really afford to maintain), and intends then simply to leave Ireland and strike out on his own.

And thus begins a summer of love for the two young people, a love as simple and innocent as can be imagined. What Ellie does not know, cannot know, is that she is a kind of stand-in for a girl Florian knew in his youth, Isabella.

The reader is also introduced to other characters in the small town, one of who is the daughter of a relatively wealthy family, known in the town simply as Miss Connulty. Miss Connulty also fell in love as a young woman, but the relationship ended in a pregnancy and secret abortion, at which time her Catholic mother spiritually and emotionally ostracized her daughter and distanced herself from the husband who aided the girl in obtaining an abortion. It is no wonder that Miss Connulty takes great interest in Ellie and what she sees as the perilous circumstances she is falling into.

Williams is exceptionally gifted in his ability to draw believable characters with whom the reader identifies and to describe what are really tragic events in their lives but with calm and apparently emotionless prose. He also creates an aura of suspense, of foreboding, such that the reader is on tenterhooks, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. And still, despite the mystery and the tension, the writing is so low key, so quiet.

At first Ellie is shocked that she has allowed herself to be seen talking to this strange man, ashamed at what the nuns who raised her would think of such conduct. But soon, though she realizes that others might see her, might jump to conclusions, she puts such concerns aside.  “Anyone could have seen them and she hadn’t cared.” For a time, she decides that should she run into him again, she will simply cross the street to avoid him, will not allow such foolishness to cause distress to her husband or bring shame on her. But when their paths cross again and Florian suggests that she does not remember him, all thoughts of avoidance are instantly dashed.
She felt the colour mounting in her face, as it had before. Her thoughts became disordered, as they had become then too, perverse and separated from her, as if they were not hers. She wanted to say that of course she remembered him. She wanted to say that she wondered about him, that she had tried not to, that she had known she should not. She wanted to say she had known immediately who it was when he’d said hullo.
Compared to the flame of most modern day romance novels, this little book is so tame, its characters on the whole so decent and considerate of others. There are no real villains, no heroes either, simply people trying to make the best of their lives. And yet Trevor is incredibly astute and meticulous in describing the inner lives of his characters, and so aware of the enormous changes in Ellie’s emotional life after she meets Florian, changes in her attitudes towards the more or less arranged marriage she is in , and towards the future she can anticipate.

Of course, I will not give way the ending of the book, nor will I tell you much more of the story. In the end it is the emotional intelligence of the writer that is most important, the actual course of events much less so. Suffice it to say that it is a beautiful little story of loneliness and isolation, but also of hope and loyalty. My suspicion is that once you have read this book of Trevor’s, you will want to read lots more. I know that I do.