8 May 1943 |
|Alma mater||London School of Economics|
|Subject||Memory, trauma, survival, recovery|
|Notable works||Regeneration Trilogy|
|Notable awards||Man Booker Prize, Guardian First Book Award|
Pat Barker CBE, FRSL (born 8 May 1943) is an English writer and novelist. She has won many awards for her fiction, which centres on themes of memory, trauma, survival and recovery. Her work is described as direct, blunt and plainspoken. In 2012, The Observer named the Regeneration Trilogy as one of "The 10 best historical novels".
Barker was born to a working-class family in Thornaby-on-Tees in the North Riding of Yorkshire, England, on 8 May 1943. Her mother Moyra died in 2000, and her father's identity is unknown. According to The Times, Moyra became pregnant "after a drunken night out while in the Wrens", and, in a climate where illegitimacy was regarded with shame, told people that the resulting child was her sister, rather than her daughter. They lived with Barker's grandmother Alice and step-grandfather William, until her mother married and moved out when Barker was seven. Barker could have joined her mother, she told The Guardian in 2003, but chose to stay with her grandmother "because of love of her, and because my stepfather didn't warm to me, nor me to him". Her grandparents ran a fish and chip shop which failed and the family was, she told The Times in 2007, "poor as church mice; we were living on National Assistance – 'on the pancrack', as my grandmother called it". At the age of eleven she won a place at grammar school, attending King James Grammar School in Knaresborough and Grangefield Grammar School in Stockton-on-Tees.
Barker, who says she has always been an avid reader, went on to study international history at the London School of Economics. After graduating in 1965, she returned home to nurse her grandmother, who died in 1971. In 1969, she was introduced, in a pub, to David Barker, a zoology professor and neurologist 20 years her senior, who left his marriage to live with her. They had two children together, and were married in 1978, after his divorce. Their daughter Anna Ralph is now a novelist. Barker was widowed when David died in January 2009.
In her mid-twenties, Barker began to write fiction. Her first three novels were never published and, she told The Guardian in 2003, "didn't deserve to be: I was being a sensitive lady novelist, which is not what I am. There's an earthiness and bawdiness in my voice.”
Her first published novel was Union Street, which consisted of seven interlinked stories about English working class women whose lives are circumscribed by poverty and violence. For ten years, the manuscript was rejected by publishers as too “bleak and depressing.” Barker then met novelist Angela Carter at a writers' workshop. Carter liked the book, telling Barker "if they can't sympathise with the women you're creating, then sod their fucking luck," and suggested she send the manuscript to feminist publisher Virago, who accepted it. Union Street was later made into a Hollywood film called Stanley and Iris, starring Robert De Niro and Jane Fonda, but Barker says the film bears little relationship to her book. The New Statesman hailed the novel as a "long overdue working class masterpiece," and the New York Times Book Review called it "first-rate, punchy and raunchy." As of 2003, it remained one of Virago's top sellers.
Barker's first three novels – Union Street (1982), Blow Your House Down (1984) and Liza's England (1986; originally published as The Century's Daughter) – depicted the lives of working class women in Yorkshire, and are described by BookForum magazine as "full of feeling, violent and sordid, but never exploitative or sensationalistic and rarely sentimental." Blow Your House Down portrays prostitutes living in a North of England city, who are being stalked by a serial killer. Liza's England, described by the Sunday Times as a "modern-day masterpiece," tracks the life of a working-class woman born at the dawn of the 20th century.
Following publication of Liza's England, Barker felt she “had got myself into a box where I was strongly typecast as a northern, regional, working class, feminist—label, label, label—novelist. It's not a matter so much of objecting to the labels, but you do get to a point where people are reading the labels instead of the book. And I felt I'd got to that point,” she said in 1992. She said she was tired of reviewers asking “'but uh, can she do men?' – as though that were some kind of Everest."
Therefore, she turned her attention to the First World War, which she had always wanted to write about due to her step-grandfather's wartime experiences. These had resulted in a scar from a bayonet wound, and he would not speak about the war. This interest resulted in what is now known as the Regeneration Trilogy—Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993), and The Ghost Road (1995)—a set of novels which explore the history of the First World War by focusing on the aftermath of trauma. The books are an unusual blend of history and fiction, and Barker draws extensively on the writings of First World War poets and W.H.R. Rivers, an army doctor who worked with traumatised soldiers. The main characters are based on historical figures, with the exception of Billy Prior, whom Barker invented to parallel and contrast with British soldier-poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.
“I think the whole British psyche is suffering from the contradiction you see in Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, where the war is both terrible and never to be repeated and at the same time experiences derived from it are given enormous value," Barker told The Guardian. "No one watches war films in quite the way the British do."
Barker told freelance journalist Wera Reusch that "I think there is a lot to be said for writing about history, because you can sometimes deal with contemporary dilemmas in a way people are more open to because it is presented in this unfamiliar guise, they don't automatically know what they think about it, whereas if you are writing about a contemporary issue on the nose, sometimes all you do is activate people's prejudices. I think the historical novel can be a backdoor into the present which is very valuable."
The Regeneration Trilogy was extremely well received by critics, with Peter Kemp of the Sunday Times describing it as “brilliant, intense and subtle," and Publishers Weekly calling it "a triumph of an imagination at once poetic and practical." The trilogy is described by the New York Times as "a fierce meditation on the horrors of war and its psychological aftermath," and novelist Jonathan Coe describes it as "one of the few real masterpieces of late 20th century British fiction." In 1995 the final book in the trilogy, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize.
Awards and recognition
In 1983, Barker won the Fawcett Society prize for fiction for Union Street. In 1993 she won the Guardian First Book Award for the Eye in the Door, and in 1995 she won the Booker Prize for The Ghost Road. In May 1997, Barker was awarded an honorary degree by the Open University as Doctor of the University. In 2000, she was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).
List of works
- Union Street (1982)
- Blow Your House Down (1984)
- The Century's Daughter (also known as Liza's England; 1986)
- The Man Who Wasn't There (1989)
- Regeneration Trilogy:
- Another World (1998)
- Border Crossing (2001)
- Double Vision (2003)
- Life Class (2007)
- Toby's Room (2012)
- Carola Dibbell, "Work Ethics", Voice Literary Supplement, October 1981.
- Jaggi, Maya (16 August 2003). "Dispatches from the front". The Guardian.
- Skidelsky, William (13 May 2012). "The 10 best historical novels". The Observer (Guardian Media Group). Retrieved 13 May 2012.
- "Biography: Pat Barker". Contemporary Writers. British Council. 9 May 2012. Retrieved 24 May 2010.
- Kemp, Peter (1 July 2007). "Pat Barker's last battle? War has been her greatest obsession – and it looms large in her new novel". The Sunday Times.
- Brannigan, John (2005). Pat Barker: Contemporary British Novelists. Manchester University Press. pp. xi and 6. ISBN 978-0-7190-6577-4.
- "Celebrated Alumni: UK", www.lse.ac.uk (2007) Retrieved 17 January 2008.
- Davies, Hannah (30 January 2010). "Novelist Pat Barker". The Journal.
- Nixon, Rob (2004). "An Interview With Pat Barker". Contemporary Literature 45 (no. 1).
- as quoted in Google Books overview: . Retrieved May 25, 2010.
- Locke, Richard (February–March 2008). "Chums of War: Pat Barker revisits the trauma of World War I". Book Forum.
- As described in macmillan.com overview: . Retrieved 25 May 2010.
- Webb, Belinda (20 November 2007). "The other Pat Barker trilogy". The Guardian/Books Blog.
- Pierpont, Claudia Roth (31 December 1995). "Shell Shock". New York Times Book Review.
- "Warring fictions: Pat Barker talks to John Ezard about the ghosts of war still within us all". The Guardian. 11 September 1993.
- Reusch, Wera. "A Backdoor into the Present: An interview with Pat Barker, one of Britain's most successful novelists".
- as quoted in Amazon.com product description: 
- "The Ghost Road" page at Barnes and Noble.
- Kakutani, Michiko (29 February 2008). "Exploring Small Stories of the Great War". The New York TImes.
- Monteith, Sharon (2001). Pat Barker (1. publ. ed.). Devon: Northcote House. ISBN 978-0-7463-0900-1.
- Monteith, Sharon; Jolly, Margaretta; Yousaf, Nahem et al. (2005). Critical perspectives on Pat Barker. Columbia (S.C.): University of South Carolina press. ISBN 1-57003-570-9.
- Rawlinson, Mark (2008). Pat Barker. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-230-00180-7.
- Brannigan, John (2005). Pat Barker. Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press. ISBN 0-7190-6576-3.
- Waterman, David (2009). Pat Barker and the mediation of social reality. Amherst, New York: Cambria Press. ISBN 1-60497-649-7.