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Book Review: Double Vision by Pat Barker

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For all her appealingly flowing and unfussy prose, Pat Barker’s novels have always contained a good measure of unconventional wisdom, the untried and true. Subtly rendered and rarely belabored, the Booker Prize winner has tackled, with distinctive execution and startling candor, such subjects as mental illness, child rape, homosexuality, murder by minors, pacifism and war.

Double Vision is about war and the ravages of violence on the human mind — but with a provocative twist, visceral and thought-inducing. Barker’s 10th novel offers a fresh take on the aftermath of 9/11 and, along with fighting in Afghanistan and the war crimes in Bosnia, explores the toll such carnage and conflict takes on her characters and on us all. In considering consequent thoughts and feelings — justifiable indignation and pangs of conscience, individual and social implications — the British author couches personal and outward struggles in an escapist, idyllic setting where the front lines emerge only in vivid memory.

The tensions under analysis recall Barker’s previous novels that deal with or touch upon war, including the highly regarded World War I-era Regeneration trilogy of the early 1990s and more recent works. But Double Vision raises other frank questions and issues concerning the potentially distorting selectivity and influence of war reporting and photojournalism, inquiries and issues very much in keeping with Barker’s history-based and psychology-steeped considerations of societal and human complexity.

Whatever complications await, the main action gets under way as nerve-racked journalist Stephen Sharkey, unwilling to “spend the rest of my life trotting off to other people’s wars,” wraps up yet another dangerous assignment in a war-torn region and also witnesses the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center — on the same day as the breakup of his marriage.

Seeking refuge, Stephen moves into a quiet cottage on the property of his brother in the north of England, a seemingly perfect retreat in which to write his book about “the way wars are represented.” It will be a book largely based on the works of his friend and colleague Ben Frobisher, a war photographer shot dead by a sniper in Afghanistan.

In the course of getting to work and gaining access to Ben’s photos, Stephen befriends Ben’s widow, Kate, a sculptor who lives close by and who was recently injured in a car accident, hindering her ability — until she reluctantly hires mysterious loner Peter Wingrave — to complete a 15-foot sculpture of Christ commissioned by a local church. Stephen also begins an affair with his autistic nephew’s nanny, Cambridge-bound Justine, 20 years his junior, who is also daughter of the local vicar, and ex-girlfriend of Peter.

Small town, small world, with all the interrelationship ingredients for conflict and retribution. While coming to terms with his own experiences of violence and being “saturated in death,” Stephen, caught unaware but not unresponsive, sees no escape as he finds himself subjected to or being embroiled in dark incidents of disturbance, friction and aggression surrounding him. His acrimonious brother and sister-in-law are going through increasing marital strife; his nephew has a morbid fixation with dead animals and road kill; the vicar displays an unsettling mean streak; wary Kate has reason to fear real violence from Peter; and, worst of all, Justine is brutally beaten during a home invasion.

Barker has written before about the ubiquity and timelessness of violence, including examinations about battle-related disorders from shell shock to, now, post-traumatic stress syndrome. In 1998’s Another World, Geordie, the dying 101-year-old World War I veteran, in his firm belief that an old bayonet wound has finally caught up with him, attests to a convincing “belief in the power of old wounds to leak into the present.” And, in Regeneration, when the WWI anti-war poet and decorated war hero Siegfried Sassoon is designated “mentally unsound” and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, the safer confines and distance from the trenches do not deter him from pen and purpose: “And yet he was writing, and he seemed to think he was writing well. All the anger and grief now went into the poetry.”

But Stephen is putting more than passion and anguish into his writing. Neither is his objective, and Barker’s, as mundane as putting down into words his war memoirs, experiences, anecdotes, or “Amusing Mass Murderers I Have Met.” It would be atypical for Barker to be so conventional and predictable, given her past expect-the-unexpected proclivity for tracing realistic psychological and cultural intricacies. In Blow Your House Down, (1984), Barker dashes some overly-romantic hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold victimization cliches by describing how a woman may ultimately opt not to get out of prostitution because the money is easy and she simply wants to stay in. In 2001’s Border Crossing, any hope for extenuating circumstances that may mitigate a child murderer’s actions are frustrated when it is revealed that no, it isn’t society’s fault, and he was not sexually abused. And in Regeneration, Sassoon, in concern for the soldiers he leads, almost inexplicably chooses to go back to the front lines despite his pacifism.

So it is not enough, in Double Vision, to take an easy way out and point fingers elsewhere, when some self-culpability may exist. A lesser novelist may have her main character cower in a corner and rail against institutions, or the war, or everybody else’s heart of darkness. Instead, Stephen, intent on conveying ideas and aiming for enlightenment, chooses to write his book about the reporter’s and photographer’s — about his and Ben’s — complicity in violence and death, in perhaps fomenting it, glorifying it and, in so doing, distorting the truth. In debating the ethical problems between voyeuristically showcasing atrocities and objectively recording the facts or documenting newsworthy, historical events, Stephen grapples with the issue: “There’s always this tension between wanting to show the truth, and yet being sceptical about what the effects of showing it are going to be.”

One especially potent illustration comes with Stephen considering a photograph taken at Slobodan Milevic’s trial at the Hague, which shows the ex-dictator being escorted into the tribunal while, apparently, the chief prosecutor laughs in triumph. However, due to camera angle and circumstance — the prosecutor was unaware of Milosevic’s presence and was sharing a private joke — the photograph was a total misrepresentation: “So much for photography as the guarantor of reality,” Stephen fumes. “It pissed him off. He kept telling himself it didn’t matter, but all the time he knew it did. Image before words every single time. And yet the images never explain anything and often, even unintentionally, mislead.”

Journalistic ethics is hardly an original issue, of course. But within the context of the novel such insight and introspection regarding the matter constitutes an inviting element that refreshingly zigs when the narrative often unrelentingly zags, gaining depth and scope with subsequent and more fleshed-out debate and ruminations. The challenging topic also lends some color and emotion to the book’s sometimes monochromatic, Stepford-still-life stiltedness, providing, even in flashback, some action in a novel in which rousing exploits are few.

Still, Barker’s latest is a quietly involving, if not always riveting, read, with — as in most of her books — compassion and heartfelt themes, ably illuminating the human propensity and need for assessment and change as “we shed ourselves all the time … shed and renew and shed again until that final shedding of ourselves.” In this regard, Double Vision is single-minded in purpose and accomplishment.
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Excerpt:

Clustered in a corner was a group of white plaster figures, striding out. Extraordinary figures: frightened and frightening.

Kate, meanwhile, had walked over to the far corner where there was a screen displaying some of Ben’s photographs. He joined her there and glanced across them. As she’d said, these were mainly from the last trip to Afghanistan.

One showed a group of boys on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, ragged, thin, peering out at the camera from behind a fence, and flashing mirrors into the sun behind the photographer. A flash of light had whited out the face of the boy holding the glass, so in a narrow, technical sense the picture was a failure. Further along, a man’s face, distorted with anger, one hand half covering the lens. Another was of an execution. A man was on his knees staring up at the men who were preparing to kill him. But Ben had included his own shadow in the shot, reaching out across the dusty road. The shadow says I’m here. I’m holding a camera and that fact will determine what happens next. In the next shot the man lies dead in the road, and the shadow of the photographer, the shadow of a man with a deformed head, has moved closer.

This wasn’t the first execution recorded on film, nor even the first to be staged specially for the camera, but normally the photographer’s presence and its impact on events is not acknowledged. Here Ben had exploded the convention

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