Working-class memory generated Pat Barker's writing. Her early fiction presented itself as a tribute to generations of suffering and survival in the industrial North-East of England. It seemed to fall into a ready-made tradition: 'the grit, the humour, the reality of working-class life', Virago burbled cheerfully about Union Street (1982). But there was more to Barker's work than that. Alongside the realism of her accounts of deprivation among the back streets was an intense imaginative inwardness. The lives she recounted were haunted, not only by the shared grind of poverty, but by private images of loss and love. There was a political edge to those novels, emerging as they did from the feminist Left, but what drove them was a long engagement with moments of vision, bleakly Wordsworthian spots of time that recur again and again in her fiction. Barker's first four books had a cumulative force, shaping histories of obsession out of the hardships of oppression. The people she spoke for had an intimate particularity that tested the limits of political analysis. Their fantasies had the insistence, and often the violence, of a lived nightmare. Images of the body imprint themselves remorselessly on the minds of her characters, and her readers: the sputum and blood erupting from a dying man, the putrescent body of the murdered prostitute, the aborted foetus of the unmarried teenager. 'She banished the image which always, in her rare moments of silence and solitude, returned to haunt her.' Much of Barker's fiction is involved with that attempted exorcism.
LRB 21 October 1993 | PDF Download