The universal fears crystallized by 9/11 provide the initially gripping, ultimately limiting core material of this overheated tenth novel from the Booker-winning British author best known for her Regeneration Trilogy.
Very capably written and insistently readable, it’s an eventful narrative focused initially on sculptress Kate Frobisher, whose photojournalist husband Ben had moved on from covering the destroyed Twin Towers to Afghanistan, where he was killed by a sniper. Kate’s story soon meshes with that of Stephen Sharkey, whose own experience of 9/11 coincided with the discovery of his wife’s adultery. After divorcing her, Stephen moves in with his physician brother Robert’s family in rural northern England, not far from Kate’s home—and begins a book on the phenomenon of violence and our responses to it. Barker skillfully connects these protagonists and the acquaintances of each. Stephen falls for 19-year-old Justine Brathwaite, a vicar’s daughter employed as an au pair caring for Robert Sharkey’s autistic ten-year-old son Adam. And Kate, who’s temporarily disabled following a car crash, continues work on a huge statue of Christ commissioned for a cathedral—with the hired assistance of Peter Wingrave, a menacing loner (and hopeful fiction writer) with a violent past, who is Justine’s former boyfriend. Nobody heals, because Barker constructs an atmosphere so charged with real and threatened violence that her characters can scarcely breathe without screaming. Stephen attends the trial of Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague, where incriminating photographs display “Human bodies baked like dog turds in the sun.” The Sharkeys’ house is burgled, and Justine brutally injured. Robert Sharkey researches “treatments for Parkinson’s and dementia.” Barker’s characters share virtually no moments that are not claustrophobic, fearful, or death-haunted. Consequently, however vividly and powerfully their experiences strike us, they are, in the final analysis, simply not credible.
An honorable failure: heartfelt, unflinching, and oddly compelling. But this author has done, and will again do, much better.