The Booker Prize–winning British author (Double Vision, 2003, etc.) returns to the subject of World War I, treated so memorably in her celebrated Regeneration trilogy.
This is a story of hopeful ambitions and relationships redirected and reshaped by a climate of catastrophic change. Early chapters set in London chart the experiences of Paul Tarrant, in flight from his youth spent in the working-class north and his family’s unhappiness, studying at the Slade Gallery, where—a demanding professor harshly implies—Paul will not transform himself into an artist. Parallel disappointments and rejections accumulate quickly. In a scene reminiscent of Dostoevsky, Paul attempts to protect a drunken teenaged girl from a well-dressed older man who appears to be stalking her—and cannot tell whether he succeeds. Paul fails to connect romantically with his virginal classmate Elinor Brooke, and a brief sexual relationship with artist’s model Teresa Halliday, the victim of her abusive estranged husband, also goes awry. Then, the War—hitherto a threatening presence rumbling in the background—takes Paul and another Slade classmate, wealthy, supremely confident Kit Neville, to Belgium, where Paul labors as an orderly in a battlefield “hospital” in Ypres, two miles from the front. Exchanges of letters between Paul and Elinor, as well as her harrowing “visit” to Ypres during which she surrenders her closely guarded virginity, and barely escapes a violent bombing attack, render the horrors of combat with (Barker’s trademark) meticulously researched detail and piercing clarity. Secondary characters’ experiences likewise amplify into lucid microcosms of the global cataclysm that shadows every individual life. And Barker pulls strings expertly, leading to a heart-wrenching anti-resolution perfectly expressed by Elinor’s guilty, self-lacerating rejection of Paul’s commitment to serve and sacrifice.
Mature, unsentimental and searching. One of this excellent writer’s finest books.