A Return to War With Pat Barker

by Charlotte Reads Classics

The other day I realized – this is going to sound really mad – what I really think, deep down, is that the dead are only dead for the duration. When it’s over they’ll all come back and it’ll be just the same as it was before.                      – Toby’s Room

Lessons learned from reading Toby’s Room and Life Class by Pat Barker: read them in the right order. I didn’t. So a word to the wise: Life Class comes first. The two books combined follow a group of art students from 1912 until 1917. As in Regeneration there is a mix of medicine and art, this time focusing on Henry Tonks’ medical drawings of facially wounded soldiers. I enjoyed the two books together, much more than I liked each one separately. There are quite a range of topics covered in the two books but the parts I found most interesting were clashes between the changing attitudes between the younger generation and their parents.

A few Sundays ago I went to see Pat Barker speak at the Imperial War Museum and I’ve tried to remember all the interesting parts!

On History

Barker was always drawn to the First World War because she was brought up by her grandparents. Her Grandfather had a bayonet wound which although she thought was something every Grandfather had is actually very rare, only accounting for about 3% of injuries. She would see this wound every weekend whilst he was washing before going to the British Legion social club. She said it wasn’t pretty, or smoothly healed like a scar from an operation might be. It made such a big impact on her when she was young because he would never speak about it: “best way to get an author inspired – keep silent”.

She was asked about why she writes about real people, and whether it was difficult to speak for them. She replied that using real people as in her novels meant that she had to be as accurate as possible and not say anything damaging to their reputation. Incidentally her favourite character is a real person too – Dr. Rivers.

The best part of writing about real people is how they react to her fictional characters. For example, in Regeneration everyone in the hospital (including Sassoon and Owen) idolised Rivers and the work he was doing to treat psychological war wounds. Therefore she needed Billy Prior to be the fictional difficult patient. He was a way to force Rivers to expose parts of his personality and psychology that he wouldn’t normally reveal.

On Feminism

Someone asked Barker whether she was still the gritty northern feminist that wrote her earlier novels like Union Street. The answer was yes – but only as far as she ever was. She said that because she was originally published by Virago this persona was slightly enforced. She would call herself a feminist but her feminism doesn’t exclude men – hence the focus on male characters in her writing today.

On Writing

Her philosophy is to just ‘keep on going until the end’ because there is no point polishing and polishing a couple of paragraphs if you don’t have anything else to work on. What I found most interesting was something she said about writing a vivid atmosphere. She started by explaining that the Author has to act as the reader’s five senses. Furthermore, when you are writing more often than not you are in the mind of one of your characters. To give a sense of place you should pick out the one detail that your character would notice. The example she gave was that a couple with infertility problems might go into a house and immediately notice a toy lying under a sofa. The challenge is to work out what your character would see.

Had I never read a Pat Barker book I would have been won over – she came across as clever, interesting and secretly shy. The only downside is that she says she doesn’t read WWI fiction: I was hoping to get some recommendations for my reading list, but alas I will just have to read more of her books instead.

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