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“Ambivalent relationships” among an embattled extended family whose confusions are mirrored and reshaped by the past are the intriguing matter of this eighth by the Booker-winning British author of, most recently, the Regeneration trilogy. The opening pages patiently expose the tensions that begin crackling when 13-year-old Miranda, middle-aged schoolteacher Nick’s daughter (by his ex-wife Barbara), comes to visit Nick, his present (and pregnant) wife Fran, their two-year-old Jasper, and preadolescent computer-game fanatic Gareth, Fran’s son by her ex. Barker sorts through these and other equally intricate particulars with commendable economy, while simultaneously constructing a rich narrative that’s as attentive to the kitchen-sink minutiae of domestic frustration (such as buying kids’ shoes) as to her story’s more immediately dramatic matters. These include the family’s accidental discovery, while stripping old wallpaper away, of a disturbing pornographic painting beneath it—presumably of the wealthy Fanshawes, the original owners of their house; Nick’s consequent realization that an alleged child murder may have occurred “where they live and sleep and eat”; and—in the novel’s boldest revelation of how the past continuously grips the present—the long death-in-life of Nick’s centenarian grandfather Geordie. A WWI veteran who compulsively mourns the comrades killed decades ago (“Every August 31st I’d say the lads’ names over to meself”), Geordie also keeps reliving the battlefield death of his brother Harry, which resonates enigmatically in his memory and conscience. That heritage of loss and its lingering aftereffects are shown—with flinty clarity—in all their complex relation to Nick and his loved ones, though Barker’s lovely conclusion paradoxically affirms the “wisdom . . . [of] let[ting] the innocent and the guilty . . . lie together beneath their half-erased names . . . under the obliterating grass.” Of such imaginative complexity and generosity are first-rate fiction made, and Barker keeps on making it about as well as anybody now writing.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-374-10525-1
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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