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The Boston Phoenix War Memories

Pat Barker's latest novel looks at World War One from the home front

By John Freeman

JULY 19, 1999: 

Another World by Pat Barker (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), 277 pages, $24

Many great war novels highlight the sheer brutality of combat. Rarer are those that examine war's domestic repercussions. In her new novel, Another World, Pat Barker does exactly that, delivering a powerfully grim meditation on the prolonged, corrosive fallout of war. In her story, populated by ghosts real and symbolic, Barker shows how war memories haunt a 101-year-old World War I veteran named Geordie and his extended family.

Barker develops the novel through two stories. The primary one, though not the first to be introduced, is Geordie's. When we meet him, he is in the hospital dying of stomach cancer. As he begins to let go, Geordie's past becomes his present, bubbling up like the fluids of his ailing body. He feels pain in an old bayonet wound and suffers from nightmares that plagued him 80 years ago -- right after the war, when he returned home without his brother Harry, who died in battle. Barker has always used symbolism to great effect, and Geordie's body is her strongest symbol yet. Riddled with tumors and rotting from the inside out, it is like the battleground in Barker's last novel, Ghost Road: "It's poisoned. Poison's dripped into it from rotting men, dead horses, gas. . . . Fifty years from now a farmer'll be ploughing these fields and turn up skulls."

But Geordie is not the only one who is poisoned by the war. There's also his grandson Nick, who inherits a piece of the war's legacy when he moves his family into Lob's Hill, the former mansion of a munitions baron. The move was to be a new start for Nick and his wife, Fran, who each have children from previous relationships. In moving to the big old house, Fran and Nick hope to bring all of their children together under one roof. But Lob's Hill proves to be the least desirable place, karmically, to do so. Built on the profits of the war's destruction, it was also the site of a turn-of-the-century fratricide that infects Nick and his family.

Shortly after they move in, it becomes clear that this isn't the dream family they imagined: Nick's daughter Miranda hates being around Fran; Fran's son Gareth hates Miranda for being a priss; and they both hate their baby brother, Jasper, for being the center of attention. Barker devises a clunky but memorable scene to drive home the similarities between the current and former owners: while taking down the hideous wallpaper, Nick's hodgepodge family discovers a painting of Lob's Hill's old residents. Miranda looks on the gloomy representation of the Edwardian family unit, and says without pause, "It's us."

Spookily, Nick's family seems to absorb the former owners' belligerence. Gareth almost succeeds in bludgeoning Jasper, and Miranda, through silence, acts in collusion with him. In an equally gothic instance of the past reaching forward, Nick, Gareth, and Miranda see the ghost of the original owner's daughter prowling around on the dank grounds. Taken out of context, this plot seems melodramatic. But it echoes with the hidden story of Geordie's past, imbuing the novel with deeply haunting resonance.

As he nears death, Geordie's nightmares increase in frequency and he shouts out, "I killed Harry." Geordie is doubly guilty: for one, he's been cheating death longer than many of his war compatriots were alive. But more importantly, according to Geordie's mother (who, at Harry's funeral, simply muttered, "Wrong one died"), he cheated his brother out of life. The question of whether Geordie's cries come from survivor's guilt or from a darker, more criminal guilt becomes more and more pressing to Nick as he sees Geordie toward the end.

Barker handles Geordie's dying, and the issues it raises, beautifully. Like Andrew Holleran's Beauty of Men or Rick Moody's Purple America, Another World treats dying as a last sensual act. Barker lingers with a poetic eye on its humiliating senses and smells, and on the memories that rise "as startling as gas bubbles on the surface of a pond." Exhuming memories that have been buried for 80 years takes all of Geordie's strength, eventually killing him. And Nick learns, finally, that the past doesn't merely become memory, it can also, in ways far more interesting than mere repetition, become the future. As Nick says mournfully of Geordie before he dies: "Geordie's past isn't over. It isn't even the past."

In her widely acclaimed Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker created a lasting testament to the inhumanity of war. Here she goes one step further, showing how war's memory is carried through time like the genes we inherit, or the poisoned soil farmers till: "There must be hundreds, thousands, probably like [Harry's son], Nick thinks, white haired sons and daughters of murdered children." Death, Barker argues here, is the only way forward: "to let the innocent and the guilty, the murderers and the victims, lie together beneath their half erased names, side by side, under the obliterating grass." It is an observation as bleak and unforgiving as war itself.

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