Monday, December 20, 2010

Double Vision by Pat Barker

Unlike Pat Barker’s horrible/wonderful depiction of war up close in her now famous Regeneration trilogy, her 2003 novel, Double Vision, has its setting far from actual theaters of war, but war and its effects on everyday people are still dominant themes. This novel is set in the English countryside and begins with the story of a sculptor, Kate, who has been commissioned to do a sculpture of Christ, though she is not herself a believer. Kate’s husband, Ben, has recently been killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan where he was on assignment as war reporter. In just the first few pages of the novel, Kate, herself, is badly injured in a road accident. Behind schedule and with a rapidly approaching deadline for completion of the sculpture, she is forced to hire an assistant, and thus begins one of the threads of this rather complex novel. We soon discover that Peter, the newly hired assistant, is more than fascinated with Kate’s work. In fact, he begins to display behavior much like that of a stalker, and this relationship between sculptor and assistant adds an aura of suspense to the entire novel.

Without giving away much of the novel, let me say that there are two other characters central to the story: Stephen Sharkey, a photographer who, like Ben, has covered 9/11 as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Justine, the daughter of the local vicar. Stephen is living in a cabin on land owned by his brother while he attempts to write a book on the role of war reporter and photographer, and Justine is hired by the doctor-brother and his busy career-oriented wife to help with the young children and maintenance of the main house.

Having been a rather close friend to Ben, it is not surprising that Stephen looks up Ben’s widow, Kate, when he finds himself in quite close proximity to her, and they begin a series of discussions on war reporting as well as their relationships with Ben.

Stephen is clearly in limbo, not sure that he wants to continue in his life as photographer of grisly war scenes, but unable to see beyond it. My hunch is that the character of Stephen allows Barker to address what is the central theme for her in this novel: namely, the motivations of war reporters and the role they play. Certainly, being around Kate and talking about her recent loss of Ben stirs up these questions in him, but it is the much younger Justine who asks him the tough questions.
‘You don’t give anybody the benefit of the doubt, do you?’
‘Not often.’
‘The truth is, you’ve been digging around in violence so long you can’t see anything else.’
‘I see you.’
‘Do you?’
Stephen sighed. This was a surprisingly married conversation to be having with a girlfriend. It had the intense acrimonious pointlessness that only comes from long years of cohabitation.
‘Why do you do it?’
She jerked her head at the girl who was talking to camera. ‘That. Be a war correspondent.’
‘Foreign.’ The distinction mattered. He was damned if he was going to call himself after an activity he despised.
‘You covered a helluva lot of wars.’
‘They were there to be covered. I didn’t start them.’
‘You know there’s a Barbara Vine book called A Dark-Adapted Eye? That’s what you’ve got.’
‘Now you’re being silly.’
‘No, I’m not. People get into darkness, to the point where it’s the light that hurts.’
‘OK,’ he said. ‘Why did I do it? Adventure, proving myself, proving I could take it—and once that wore of, which it does, very quickly, being in the know. That sort of thing.’
She was looking at him scornfully.
‘Yeah, OK. I know—pathetic. But why do you think people become doctors? Pure altruism? I don’t think so.’
‘Why then?’
‘Knowledge. Access to secrets. Power.’
‘Not the only reasons.’
‘There are plenty of good reasons for being a war correspondent. Witnessing. Giving people the raw material to make moral judgments.’
‘But you said yourself, the witness turns into an audience, and then you’re not witnessing any more, you’re disseminating.’
While there are many twists and turns to this novel, including a simple and convincing love story, I think Barker mainly wants to talk about wars and about the way they are presented to the so-called folks-back-home. The ways in which television homogenizes and sanctifies war, both by what it shows and what it omits.

I haven’t mentioned just how this novel evolves into a kind of mystery thriller, and I don’t intend to give anything away. But while the plot is interesting and the suspense palpable, it is really war and countries that wage war that is at the heart of Barker’s interest. Let me close with one other quote from the book on a day when Stephen is trying, not very successfully, to get on with his book.
On Friday he’d broken off in the middle of a discussion about the bombardment of Baghdad in 1991—the first war to appear on TV screens as a kind of son et lumiere  display {sound and light show}, the first where the bombardment of enemy forces acquired the bloodless precision of a video game. He’d found it disconcerting at the time, and still did. What happens to public opinion in democracies—traditionally reluctant to wage war—when the human cost of battle is invisible: Of course there was nothing new in strict wartime censorship: it had been imposed in both world wars. But, in the first, nothing could hide the arrival of the telegrams nor, in the second, the explosion of bombs. What had been new about Baghdad and later Belgrade was the combination of censorship with massive, one-sided aerial bombardment so that allied casualties were minimal or non-existent, and ‘collateral damage’ couldn’t be shown. These wars designed to ensure that fear and pain never came home.
I haven’t even mentioned Barker’s analysis of two-career with children families, nor her  beautiful take on why and how good relationships require faith and risks. There is so much in this novel. I’m glad I read it; I hope you will.

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