Pat Barker | Critical Review by Dinah Birch

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Pat Barker.
This section contains 669 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Dinah Birch

Critical Review by Dinah Birch

SOURCE: "Growing Up," in London Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 8, April 20, 1989, pp. 20-2.

In the following excerpt, Birch favorably assesses Barker's use of language and insights into her characters' lives in The Man Who Wasn't There.

[Pat Barker's] novels have all been versions of the same intense story: working-class families or, more specifically, the women of such families, contending with the inequities of poverty and ignorance. Men have always existed on the margins of her narratives. Etiolated and ineffective, they are seen only in relation to the lives of sturdier mothers, wives, sisters or daughters. As a rule they die or disappear, fading out of the story rather like the absent father in [Penelope] Lively's Passing On. Now Pat Barker has both confronted and reversed this attribute of her fiction. Her latest novel, The Man Who Wasn't There, focuses on a boy's relation with the father he has never known. What does it mean to mould your life on a man who isn't there?

Pat Barker answers this question in terms which will be familiar to readers of her earlier books, for one of the conclusions to emerge from this work is that to be a boy lost in a hostile and repressive world may not, after all, be wholly dissimilar from being a girl in the same world. The most unforgettable episode in her first book, Union Street (1982), deals with a girl led into disaster by the fantasy she constructs to fill the empty place of her absent father. Twelve-year-old Colin is the male reflection of this girl. Haunted by the same absence, he also creates an elaborate and consoling drama in his head. Creativity, for Pat Barker, always grows out of loneliness and loss. But such creativity may be a dangerous business. Colin's fantasy, shaped by comic books and adventure films, is set in a schoolboy's notion of Occupied France. Unfolding beside the squalors of a life that Colin rejects, this sustaining fiction, too, almost leads to catastrophe. The dark image of his father, a man in black, steps out of a scarcely controlled imagination and begins to dog his creator like a sinister ghost. Only when Colin is able to recognise what the man in black really represents is he able to rid himself of the self-pity and resentment which had given birth to a corrosive nightmare. Like Lively's middle-aged children, he frees himself by exorcising the ghost of a parent. Here, the parent is not dead but nameless. Recognising that he will never know his own father, Colin arrives at a matter-of-fact wisdom. 'So the blank space would remain blank, he thought. Well, he could live with that. People had survived far worse.'

[A] resigned book, then: but a hopeful one, too. Colin has broken out of an impasse. So, hearteningly, has Pat Barker. She has always written out of an almost uncanny sensitivity to the cadences of the people she has listened to all her life. Reminding us of what unlettered women working in the North of England have had to say, she has colonised a territory which remains unaccustomed ground for the novel. But the solidity of her identity as a writer has threatened to impose its own limitations. There were too many moments in the novels succeeding Union Street to give her readers the sense of déjà lu. The Man Who Wasn't There proves her to be open to experiment. The solution she finds is a clever one, for since Colin's fantasy life in wartime France is fabricated out of parody and cliché, the inauthenticity of its language confirms its function in the novel. The point might have been made less strenuously, but it is worth making. Language is what separates the density of the life which surrounds Colin from the vacuously seductive scenes which he has constructed out of his daydreams. Fantasy has its uses. But it also has its own proper limits, and the resilience of Pat Barker's writing lies in knowing where they lie.

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This section contains 669 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Dinah Birch
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