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BOOKS & IDEAS

England's northern light

Be it WWI or gritty feminism, novelist Pat Barker does it in her singular style.

January 20, 2008|William Georgiades | Special to The Times

DURHAM, ENGLAND — In 1983, Pat Barker was named one of the best young British novelists by the literary magazine Granta. The list, which has proven to be prescient, also included Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, among others. Barker could not have differed more from her fellow honorees. She had published just one novel, "Union Street," the year before; at 39 she was pushing the definition of young; and her subject -- the grim life circumstances of working-class women in northern England -- was completely alien to the worldly and London-centric novels of her newfound peers. Further, she wasn't a part of the London party circuit that that Brit Lit crowd is still so associated with.

Twenty-five years later, that distinction remains in place. Barker continues to reside three hours north of London, and she has never made the gossip or business pages. Instead, she has steadily turned out novels that have been greeted with universal acclaim, never more so than in 1995, when she won the Booker Prize (beating out the heavily favored "Midnight's Children" by Rushdie) for "The Ghost Road," the conclusion of her Regeneration trilogy, the work that cemented her reputation as one of the great authors of her generation.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, January 24, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Pat Barker: An article in Sunday's Arts & Music section about novelist Pat Barker said that in 1995, when she won the Booker Prize for "The Ghost Road," she edged the heavily favored "Midnight's Children" by Salman Rushdie. "Midnight's Children" won the Booker in 1981; it was Rushdie's novel "The Moor's Last Sigh" that was shortlisted for the 1995 Booker and lost to "The Ghost Road."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 27, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Pat Barker: An article last Sunday about novelist Pat Barker said that in 1995, when she won the Booker Prize for "The Ghost Road," she edged the heavily favored "Midnight's Children" by Salman Rushdie. "Midnight Children" won the Booker in 1981; it was Rushdie's novel "The Moor's Last Sigh" that was shortlisted for the 1995 Booker and lost to "The Ghost Road."

This month, Doubleday will publish Barker's 11th novel, "Life Class," which concerns three students at the Slade Academy of Art in the months leading to World War I, then follows their experiences tending to the wounded behind the trenches in France. The book, published in England last August to generally strong reviews, is a return to the historical milieu of Barker's celebrated trilogy. Gerry Howard, her editor at Doubleday, couldn't be more pleased about that. "The main emphasis with this book is that she has gone back to her core subject of the war," he said, "and that is something we want to impress."

Barker understands, to a point. "I think the return to the First World War has caused a bit of buzz this time around," she allowed. "But I don't really think of the books as being about the First World War -- the war itself fades into the background because the themes of each book are quite different. It's not the way I look at it."

Barker tends to see the world a little differently than most -- she's more sensible and down to earth than most people who spend their days creating fictional universes, and the hype of the publishing industry doesn't seem to be of interest. Barker continues to live in the university town of Durham, three hours north of London by train. We met in the bar of the Royal Marriott, which serves as the town's one fancy hotel. It's a chilly maze of corridors overlooking a river, mostly populated by university students' parents. Barker arrived early, settling into a corner sofa. She is not terribly excited about the demands of publicity. " 'Meet the writer' things fill me with suspicion," she said amid introductory pleasantries, "because it's impossible to meet the writer except in the work. But I think I am basically quite unlike my work. I think I'm much more cheerful." She is indeed cheerful, yet she is also very much like all of her novels -- accessible, earthy, good-humored and clear.

"Life Class" consists of halves. In the first, Barker explores the days leading to the war, concentrating on Paul Tarrant, a working-class boy at the Slade Academy. Revolving around him are Kit, a celebrated artist of questionable moral fiber, and Elinor, an altogether modern woman who toys with the affections of both men. The second half of the novel moves the action to France at the outbreak of the war. Paul works as an orderly in a makeshift hospital behind the trenches, and the reverie of his art-student world is immediately shattered by the contrast of the appallingly wounded men he must treat. While the reader might intuit that Barker is making a point by juxtaposing the necessary self-indulgence of the artist and the horror of war, it turns out that Paul is inspired by the horror to produce his best work. In one of the most moving passages of the book, he becomes most alive in the creation of a painting in between hospital shifts.

One of the first casualties Paul deals with is a young man whose genitals have been blown to pieces. Barker does have a flair for the horrific, but one wonders why one of her first war scenes had to be quite so gruesome. "Partly it's the irony, of course," she said pleasantly. "It's the ultimate expression of masculinity. But it is taken from an actual case. All the wounds described are from actual cases."

Barker did a great deal of research for the book, from the conditions the surgeons were working in to the effect the French soil had on the wounded men. One might have thought she had exhausted the squalor and abject terror of the battlefields in "Regeneration," but shifting the scene to the hospitals, she renders the war even more vividly.

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