Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer All in the Family

Think you've got problems? Consider the Halfords.

By Leonard Gill

MAY 24, 1999: 

Another World by Pat Barker, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 278 pp., $24

It's hard to know where exactly to put Another World, the latest novel from Booker Award-winning author Pat Barker. The short-list of possible categories runs as follows: A) Ghost story. B) Contemporary, domestic melodrama (division: English; subdivision: kitchen-sink, but smart). C) Argument for family counseling. D) Argument against family counseling. E) How-to manual on the care and disposal of the terminally ill. F) Meditation on the uses and abuses of memory. Or, G) The unfairness of it all ("all" meaning life). But it's really no contest. The correct answer, you guessed it, is H: all of the above. Here's what this good book's about:

Nick, fortyish and son of an emotionally distant schoolmaster father, professionally an academic of some sort in his own right (psychologist?), is married to Fran, is, according to Fran, "fantastic with other people's problem kids, bloody useless with his own." Nick is a drinker at the end of the day (and the close of the day keeps coming earlier) and a smoker, but a smoker who sneaks his fags, for the life-preserving benefit of those left inside, outside the walls of his very own, newly bought, upper-middle-class Victorian home in Newcastle. Nick's maternal grandfather, Geordie, is 101 years old, lives alone when not in a hospital ward, is a World War I vet scarred for life, is victim of inoperable (and spreading) stomach cancer, and may or may not be the murderer of his own brother way back when in No Man's Land. Fran's pregnant with her third child (the second child, also by Nick, is Jasper, age 2, teething and not off the breast). Fran is, in short, a woman fit to be tied. Gareth, her 11-year-old illegitimate son and first child by some boyfriend named Mark, four boyfriends back, is a classic case (for lack of a sustaining father figure?) of a kid stuck at the anal and oral phase: Gareth flosses and brushes till his mouth bleeds, uses Nick's toothbrush, in a retaliatory bid, to wipe the rim of the toilet bowl, has already been caught once and sent before a school psychologist for flushing a 4-year-old, head first, in a toilet, sits hours before violent computer games, sucks his thumb when he thinks no one is looking, and, in a snit (and when is he not?), whirls dervish-like up against walls and up stairs till exhaustion and dizziness drop him to the floor. (Gareth, we discover in a particularly humiliating episode and via some neighborhood girls, real toughs, also sports "skid marks." In salute to his biological father?) Miranda, age 13, is Nick's patient daughter by his former wife Barbara, who has just been transferred to a mental institution for reasons Barker does not make clear. Miranda isn't the creep Gareth (who could use somebody's backhand) is, but we're told she can be "formidable" and a beaut when it comes to harboring dark thoughts.

That's the Halfords.

The other family in Another World is named Fanshawe, the same Fanshawes of Newcastle whose house, Lob's Hill, Nick recently purchased. The father Fanshawe was an arms merchant made rich at the turn of the century, made richer by world war. Wife: Isobel. Their two kids, Muriel and Robert, were cleared in a sensational murder trial that gripped England in 1911. The victim: James, the couple's third child, a 2-year-old, Muriel and Robert's brother. Get the picture when it comes to the scary tactics Barker comes up with with regard to Miranda, Gareth, and little Jasper? Nick, sort of and late, does.

In an effort to get put-upon father, warring wife, sullen daughter, and impossible stepson involved constructively in a group project (stripping wallpaper), the Halfords discover a Fanshawe group portrait. The scene is Victorian-proper until they also uncover in Fanshawe-the-father's depiction a monstrous, erect phallus and in Fanshawe-the-mother's depiction a hideously engorged pair of exposed breasts. The image hits home, too close for anyone's comfort, and hits the hardest in the head-Halford, Nick. (Fran's too tired, almost too fed up to care.) And there hangs the tale in Another World -- with, in addition, what may or may not be the ghost of a girl, who, according to Gareth (how does he know this?), used to sleep in Miranda's room, was drowned in, was never recovered from the house's backyard well.

And poor Geordie, at death's door, in the trenches? He has enough on his dying hands dealing with his own uncertain, but certainly troubled, past.

Lost? Then let Pat Barker's deft storytelling clear the confusion. An exceptionally crafty blend of suspense backed by insight is precisely what this story called for and in Barker exactly what it gets.

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