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Book Review: Double Vision by Pat Barker

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Double Vision by Pat Barker is a novel that defies description. Within its pages there is war, crime, murder, rape, love, hate, sex, artistry, creativity, duplicity, anger, tenderness, inspiration: a dictionary might have enough words to list its subtleties. What it has aplenty is feeling and emotion, an ability to convey its characters' innermost thoughts in an almost tactile manner, as if sculpting them for a hand to explore their surface. At times, Pat Barker’s characters surprise even themselves.

At the heart of the book is a series of relationships between four individuals – Justine, Ben, Kate and Stephen. The two men used to work together as a team. They have covered wars and conflict throughout the world. Stephen was the writer, Ben the photographer, who would always insist on getting that one last shot, the one that the eyeless onlooker would miss, the one whose poetry would convey the true horror, the one whose horror, perhaps, might stir conscience. But one day, in Afghanistan, he pursued his perfectionist brief one shot too far and, over-exposed, another’s eagle eye picked him out.

The loss felt by Stephen will never be adequately described, especially by himself. His partner’s death puts him in limbo and he retires to write. Ben’s sculptor wife, Kate, is left both numb and destroyed by her loss, a loss which becomes everything, and nothing. A commission to create a giant Christ for a prime site in a churchyard is both pressing and unexpectedly therapeutic. She wants him naked. He must be clad. But then an accident damages her arms and she must seek help from a gardener, Peter, who is clearly much more than a pruner of roses. Exactly what Peter might be adds a sense of tangible mystery to parts of the book, but these serve only to highlight the fact that he is perhaps the only one of the characters with a recorded and therefore accessible past.

Justine is the vicar’s daughter. At nineteen she was ready to go to university, but illness disrupted her plans. Being ditched by a boyfriend did not help. And so academe was deferred by an enforced gap year. She ‘does’ for Stephen’s brother and his wife, specialising in caring for a difficult, demanding child. When Stephen lodges with the family, but in a separate dwelling a hundred yards from the house, he and Justine meet. He is old enough to be her father. So what? Their relationship develops through the book, their frequent sexual encounters both rich and surprising. Pat Barker’s ability to tease out emotional reaction, to crystallise it but at the same time to keep it fluid makes the story of Stephen and Justine exciting, exhilarating, contradictory, impossible and accepted in one. Whatever people’s ages, whatever their motives, whatever the consequences — either real or imagined — people still need love, can sense its promise, can invite it, even when they know it could hurt, humiliate, destroy.

Double Vision is thus a complex story of how a group of friends and acquaintances interact with history, reality, their hopes and fears in a small community in the north-east of England. There is a strong sense of place, a keen eye for detail in a rural landscape that is at least partly hostile. Not that other landscapes are not hostile. Memories of war and its consequences haunt some of the characters. Failed relationships taunt others. Unrealised dreams snag away at the fraying edges of what might have been. Death turns lives upside down, lives that go on to new ecstasies of joy, creativity or even plunder.

At the end of Double Vision you know these people intimately and intuitively. But your knowledge and understanding of people is like a photograph. It is valid only for the instant in which it was taken. As memory, it solidifies an ever changing reality into an illusion of permanence, like a sculpture captures a moment of movement, a moment that never happened. Life goes on. This is a beautiful book.

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