Pat Barker | Critical Review by Robert Christgau

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Pat Barker.
This section contains 657 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Robert Christgau

SOURCE: A review of The Century's Daughter, in The Village Voice Literary Supplement, No. 49, October, 1986, pp. 3-4.

In the following positive review of The Century's Daughter, Christgau argues that Barker's themes are well served by the novel's flashback structure.

As 84-year-old Liza Wright searched for her past in a bed of coals to begin Chapter 2 of Pat Barker's The Century's Daughter, I felt annoyed if not betrayed. Just when I was all set to find out how Liza was going to get on with the social worker she'd met in Chapter 1, Barker was pulling a flashback on me. What a drag. But then I remembered that although Barker adheres skillfully and unquestioningly to realist convention, you don't read her for narrative momentum—she has no special gift for that particular illusion of coherence. The most formally satisfying of her three books—1982's Union Street, a collection of loosely interlocking stories whose ungainly overall shape suggests the chancy pattern of casual-to-intimate community that unfolds within it—doesn't pretend to be a novel, and 1984's Blow Your House Down, which does, regularly interrupts its whodunit conceit.

No, what makes Barker such a treat isn't plot. It's realism's other little secret: documentary value. Just as you read London to learn about the sea or Mann to learn about the German bourgeoisie or Mason to learn about K-Mart America, you read Barker to learn about England's just-barely-working class, especially the women of that class. While England's workingmen have their literary representatives (nothing of Barker's is up to Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), no male writer could approach the empathy with which Barker portrays her housewives, naive young things, prostitutes, factory workers, and scrabblers in the dirt, and no female writer has. Nobody else has fashioned such convincing, hard-edged accounts of the pain and occasional lucky pleasure of working-class marriage, the onerous joys of motherhood, or the killing details of menial labor.

Union Street takes place in 1973, Blow Your House Down in the present; neither departs from its uneducated characters for any outsider looking in. With The Century's Daughter, Barker clearly wants to stretch a bit. The flashbacks are for history, Liza's and the century's; the social worker, a turning-30 scholarship boy whose homosexuality gets just enough of the novel's space, is the first Barker character who represents her POV and also occasions a plunge into that great cliché of contemporary fiction, the death of a parent. Barker has a right to these indulgences, and she brings them off. No contemporary setting would permit her memorable realizations of pre-dole privation or pre-pill families, and Stephen's marginally more genteel circumstances enable Barker to demonstrate that oppression is hardly confined to the impoverished. But this stuff isn't what she's best at, and on the whole it transforms a compelling and original writer into a readable and worthwhile one.

What's made Barker's unromantic vision of working-class life so attractive is her refusal to abandon hope. Even the disturbing sexual descriptions—molested 11-year-old, blowjobs by the quid, Stephen's suddenly unemployed father's sudden obsession with little girls—aren't all she sees; there's a paid encounter between two over-sixties in Union Street that's as sweet as anything in Fanny Hill. But the new book doesn't find history encouraging. Yes, Barker tells us, the poor do have it easier now, but that doesn't mean that their capacity for community hasn't been sapped by everything from council flats to the cash nexus.

Fair enough, but after Liza was murdered by skinheads I felt annoyed if not betrayed. It's my guess that artistic renown has removed Barker slightly from whatever amalgam of experience and inspiration fired the sympathy—a sympathy almost indistinguishable from identification—on which that renown is based. Like her social worker, she's on the outside, a touch more skeptical than she once was. There's excellent reason for such skepticism, unfortunately, but since most writers are bourgeois outsiders, it comes cheap as a literary commodity. The identification is a rare thing.

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This section contains 657 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Robert Christgau
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