I haven’t read Pat Barker since reading The Regeneration trilogy. In fact I’ve hardly read any First World War fiction since then because it was so good that everything else pales in comparison (Birdsong and Three Day Road excluded and I am reliably informed I should read Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way).
I never quite connected with this book or the characters. The three central characters are Elinor Brooke, a young artist attending the Slade School of Art in 1912 where she meets fellow students Kit Neville and Paul Tarrant. Elinor is very close to her brother Toby, too close in fact, but he’s also the only person she truly connects with, which also makes it hard to connect with her as the reader. We barely meet Kit at Slade and Paul is almost an after thought.
The story then jumps to 1917 and we finally get to know Paul a little better but still not fully. He is recently returned from the front with a wounded leg. We find out that he has had an affair with Elinor in the intervening years and that she has also become close with Kit. But the war has of course changed everything. Toby is ‘Missing, Believed Killed’. Kit, who was in his unit, seems to know what happened but he has been badly wounded and disfigured and will not talk about what happened.
The story explores the convergence of art, war and surgery but you feel like you’re only scratching the surface. Unlike Regeneration where you explored the effects of shell shock and the experimental treatments you don’t feel satisfied or engaged with what the novel was attempting to achieve. The big reveal of the circumstances surrounding Toby is also flat.
The back of the book claims this to be “Pat Barker’s most powerful novel yet”. Unfortunately it isn’t. Barker is a great writer but for me this novel misses the mark and I think she going to be forever trapped by the shadow of her truly great previous work especially when writing about the First World War.
Classification: Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945)
Format: Paperback (198mm x 129mm x 19mm)
Imprint: Penguin Books Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 7-Feb-2013
Country of Publication: United Kingdom