Pat Barker: Another World
Barker’s first novel after her World War I trilogy deals once more with memories of World War I but focuses more on how memories of past events can affect the present. Fran and Nick are married. Nick has a daughter, Melinda, aged thirteen, from his previous marriage to Barbara. Barbara has just been confined to a mental institution and Melinda is coming to stay with Fran and Nick. Fran has a son, Gareth, aged eleven, from her previous relationship whom she describes merely as a stain on the sheet. Gareth never knew his father but has rejected all Fran’s subsequent boyfriends and does not like Nick, to the extent of nightly wiping Nick’s toothbrush around the toilet rim. Fran and Nick have one son, Jasper, aged two, and Fran is currently pregnant. She has given up her job while Nick works as a university professor. They have just bought a large house – Lob’s Hill – near a fairly run-down area of Newcastle. The house is in chaos. Gareth is behaving badly and he dislikes his stepsister, his stepfather and half-brother. Melinda accepts that she has to be there but is not too happy about it. Jasper is at the difficult age and Fran is find it difficult coping with Jasper, Gareth’s moods, the move and Nick’s absences.
Apart from the family issues, there are two main plot threads. The first is the one causing Nick’s absence. His grandfather, Geordie, aged 101, is dying of cancer and Nick is helping his aunt Frieda (Geordie’s daughter but in her seventies) look after him, which means he often has to leave Fran. Geordie was injured in World War I by a bayonet, though the wound causes him little problem now. More importantly, his brother, Harry, was killed in World War I. Their mother had said to Geordie at the funeral service that the wrong one was killed. Geordie had been resentful of his brother, who was more gifted, better-looking and clearly his parents’ favourite. Geordie has been a widower for forty years but has managed well on his own. Because of his age and World War I experience he has been frequently interviewed. In particular a researcher writing a book on how World War I memories can affect the present has visited him extensively and written a book in which he figures. However, it is clear that Geordie has told her something that is quite serious. We do, of course, learn this secret but not till after Geordie’s death at the end of the book.
The other key plot element is the house. While, en famille, they are stripping the wallpaper in the living room, they discover a family portrait of the original owners, the Fanshawes, a family which did well out of World War I armaments sales and whose much larger house they later visit. There are two interesting things about the portrait. Firstly, mother and father are naked, mother with voluptuous breasts and father with an erect penis. Nick guesses, from his eyes, that the son painted it. Secondly, as Melinda points out, It’s us. And indeed the Fanshawe family matches their family, with mother, father, early teen boy and girl and young boy. The mother is even the father’s second wife and the stepmother of both older boy and girl. However, as Fran points out, she is not pregnant. When they visit the house, Nick find the original photo on which the portrait is modelled. More particularly he finds a book for sale on famous Northern murders which mentions one in the Fanshawe family. The two oldest children are accused of murdering the young boy, presumably not long after the portrait was painted. Because there is only one unreliable witness, they get off, thanks to clever lawyers, but everyone suspects that they did it. The boy is killed in World War I but the girl lives on, as a spinster, to a ripe old age, shunned by her neighbours, who still think that she killed her brother.
The Fanshawe family, albeit briefly, comes to haunt them. Several members of the family see or think they see the girl. In particular, when they take a trip to the beach, the parents fall asleep. Jasper is playing in a stream while Gareth, unseen by his half-brother, climbs a nearby cliff. He throws stones near his half-brother to frighten him but one stone inadvertently hits the boy, causing him to fall and bleed. Gareth looks up and sees what he thinks is Melinda watching him but she is later shown to have been elsewhere. The inescapable conclusion is that it was the Fanshawe girl. Was she urging Gareth to kill his brother or was she somehow complicit? We never do find out and Barker, while briefly showing these ghosts, does not make too much of the issue, though it is clear that the memory of the house is affecting the present.
As an exercise in memory, this story is well told. The domestic issues do tend to dominate the ghost story, though Geordie’s story has a certain prominence. It is a well-told tale but I was left with the feeling that something was missing.
First published 1998 by Viking