Monday, August 27, 2018

Border Crossing by Pat Barker

I want to talk to you this morning about a frighteningly good book by Pat Barker, entitled Border Crossing. Many of you readers will know Barker for her trilogy Regeneration, the third of which The Ghost Road, won the Booker prize in 1995. In the first book of the Trilogy, Regeneration, Barker describes what was then called shellshock, but would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder, and the near barbaric ways in which it was treated in World War I. As one commentator puts it, “Pat Barker understands the dynamics of psychic trauma and shutdown as well as any writer living…In Border Crossing Barker brings post-traumatic stress disorder from the literal to the domestic battlefield.”

I will not tell you much of the story, since it is the story, itself, which is so frightening and insightful. A therapist, Tom Seymour is walking and quietly arguing with his wife as he sees a young man jump into the icy Tyne river. He jumps into the river to save the young man without realizing that Danny, the boy he is saving, is the same boy who was convicted of murdering an old woman when he was ten years old, convicted in adult court largely on the basis of Tom’s psychological assessment of him and his ability to understand what he has done. Due to the notoriety of the crime, when Danny is released from prison, he is given a new identity. Tom’s marriage is dissolving as the story begins, and the two main strands of the novel have to do with Tom’s ‘treatment’ of the young man and  the struggle he and his wife Lauren are going through as their marriage unravels.  

Tom is in the process of writing a book on children with “conduct disorder”
It was too easily assumed that such children simply lacked conscience. Of course, a minority did… Many of the children, and most of the adolescents he talked to, were preoccupied—no, obsessed—with issues of loyalty, betrayal, justice, rights (theirs), courage, reputation, shame. Theirs was a warrior morality, primitive and exacting.
In spite of overwhelming forensic evidence that Danny did commit the murder of which he is accused, he claims to have no memory of it, and even after being released from prison, still maintains his innocence. The discussions between Tom and Danny, not really therapy sessions, but more like discussions about morality between adults are wonderfully complex. Barker is able to lay out the inner working of the mind in such incredible rich detail.

I think I will not reveal more of the plot of this short but intense novel, but instead remark that while Barker will, I think, be remembered primarily as a war novelist, her themes are actually much more diverse than that. Her novels about poor Irish women raising their children usually with no help from their men make it clear that she writes from intimate experience. Her early novels, Union Street and Blow Your House Down are every bit as profound and revelatory as Regeneration, though they did not get the critical acclaim deserved.  

Having been mired in contemporary mysteries and romances for a bit too long, it was exciting and refreshing to discover this Barker that I had not read. I recommend all of her books to you and think her one of the most important novelists of the last fifty years. 

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