Friday, April 10, 2009

A Book of Ghosts

Another World, by Booker prize winner Pat Barker, is an engrossing book about the power of memory and the burden of secrets . It builds on two themes she has explored in detail in other books - - the lives of soldiers surviving the First World War, (the Regeneration trilogy) and troubled children (Border Crossing). The book narrates the story of a few weeks in the lives of Nick Halfour and his family , as he struggles to keep the peace with his wife Fran and their respective children, and care for his dying grandfather, Geordie.

Nick's family is as dysfunctional as they come, and each member seems haunted by their own personal demons . Pregnant Fran struggles with housework, near-constant exhaustion and the stress of moving into a new house. She is devoted to her toddler, yet guiltily pushes her oldest child away.That child, Gareth, a troubled young boy with a past record of violent behaviour, vents his anger on his little step brother, yet deeply fears the older kids in the neighbourhood. Miranda, Nick's daughter from his first marriage, tries her best to fit into this household, even as fears she will inherit her mother's madness. Nick guiltily contemplates his repulsion of Fran, even as he finds himself drawn to his friend Helen. Geordie, a 101 year old veteran of the First World War, has never recovered from the trauma he suffered, and this seems to be taking its toll on him in his last days, as he begins to hallucinate. A chance remark by Geordie sets Nick off on a search into his grandfather's past, to find the ghosts that seem to haunt him still.

Meanwhile, Fran's single attempt at bringing the family together by working on redecorating the house leads to an unpleasant discovery - an obscene family portrait that suggests the previous occupants ,the Fanshawes, may have had secrets of their own. 'It's us', gasps Miranda, and you wonder as much, as the malevolence of that portrait begins to echo in their own lives. Nick then begins a second search, into the secrets that the house may harbour.

This is a gripping tale, deftly told. The language is sparse, the atmosphere bleak for much of its length. Menace lurks over the characters from very early on and, as the story increasingly acquires the feel of a thriller, an unpleasant end seems inevitable. Geordie's mind and body steadily betray him as he fights to keep his dignity in his last days. Nick discovers hard truths - both about Geordie and the Fanshawes. But as awful as the Fanshawe mystery is in itself,the fact that it mirrors the Halfour's resentment of each other suggests a similar, or worse, fate may lie in store for them. The book also deals honestly with a difficult subject - violent children. Gareth is like a ticking time bomb, as he steps up his attacks on his brother. Yet his mother - who relentlessly prevents Nick from stepping in as a father - chooses denial over confrontation with the boy, even as she waits to deliver yet another sibling for Gareth to resent and, most likely, victimise as well.

Loss, guilt, resentment - these are powerful themes, and well conveyed in this narrative. And yet, a disappointment at the end. Nick decides to hide the Fanshawe secret from his family, as he doesn't think it is knowledge that could help them. Fran deals with Gareth not by addressing his problems but by removing him from the house, to be be looked after by someone else.

'It's easy to let oneself be dazzled by false analogies - the past never threatens anything as simple, or as avoidable, as repetition'...writes Barker.

Yet it would seem repetition is clearly what Nick and Fran are aiming for, as they each independently choose secrecy or denial in dealing with their problems. I found this troubling - if there is a lesson to be learnt from Geordie's anguish , surely it is the tragic effects of repressing trauma and keeping secrets. And what was the Fanshawe tragedy about after all, but sibling rivalry and the need for a parent's attention? If Geordie's experiences have haunted him till his dying day, Gareth's issues, and his violent methods of dealing with them, are no less threatening to his future, and that of his family. The final scene too, with Nick in a graveyard, seems to allude to the wisdom of keeping things buried, of letting the dead lie - a closure that seems to summarily dismiss the pain and suffering that Geordie and the Fanshawes felt, in favour of the conspiracy of silence that followed them to their tragic ends.

A book to read for its spare, lucid style and some memorable, if unlikeable, characters. And for all my reservations about the way it turned out, still a powerful story.

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