Pat Barker has a certain poise; a gravitas that at first makes her seem distant. Once she begins to talk about her new book Toby’s Room, however, conversation flows easily and her no-nonsense replies come in an accent that hints at her Yorkshire upbringing. Barker acknowledges the influence that growing up in the North of England has had on her writing: “I think my style is very very heavily influenced by the oral storytelling of my family, especially my great aunts who rabbited on and on, bless them…my style is strongly regional.”
Barker is best known for her Regeneration trilogy; three historical novels that focus on the trauma of the Great War, examining the relationship between Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. The second book in the series The Eye in the Door won the Guardian First Book Award in 1993, and a Booker prize followed swiftly in 1995 for her third book The Ghost Road. Following on from her most recent Life Class, her new novel explores the physical and emotional trauma experienced by soldiers returning from the Western Front with terrible facial injuries.
Barker explains that this isn’t a straightforward ‘sequel’ (and certainly not part of a trilogy), but rather a reflection that explores the lives of characters encountered in her previous novel in greater depth: “Hopefully this book will shed some light on particular scenes in Life Class, once the reader knows slightly more," she says. "I think that’s very close to the way we live our own lives; we find something out about a particular phase in our life that we didn’t know, and because of that the past starts to look slightly different.”
One of the central characters we learn more about is Henry Tonks; a notable English artist and professor at the Slade School of Fine Art who was commissioned to create pastel portraits of facially disfigured soldiers and airmen to aid primitive reconstructive surgery. Barker explains that she discovered the existence of these visual records by chance: “I discovered quite by accident towards the end of Life Class that he’d painted these portraits. They are undoubtedly works of art, but at the same time they were painted to help the surgeon. They were looked at along with pen and ink drawings and photographs of the injuries… The surgeons presumably got something from the pastel drawings that the photographs couldn’t give them – perhaps a sense of depth? Some sense of the character of the man?” These astonishing works can be viewed today as part of the Ghillies Archive collection at the Royal College of Surgeons.
So what responsibility does the historical novelist have? Barker is adamant that an author must represent real-life characters accurately. It would be wrong, she posits, to give characters like Owen and Sassoon views they didn’t hold, and in her work she conspicuously avoids delving into their private lives. Conversely, fictional characters such as Billy Prior (a mute, sexually ambiguous character with fiercely destructive tendencies who appears throughout the Regeneration books) allow the author to let rip. “They can behave as badly as you want them to behave.”
“There’s an awful lot of muteness in my novels” says Barker, but she is suspicious of the notion that part of the author’s role is to give voice to the disaffected. She cites the example of the soldier poets who claimed they were giving voice to the largely uneducated and inarticulate men fighting in the trenches: “Guess what, those men were perfectly capable of expressing their own opinion. I don’t like this idea of writing a social work; giving a voice to the afflicted.”
The First World War is of great importance to Barker, as both her father and grandfather fought in this conflict: “War in my family was a great determining issue.” For a long time Barker believed that her father had been killed whilst serving as an RAF pilot in the Second World War. Only recently has it transpired that this was a myth, invented to conceal the fact that her mother didn’t know the real identity of her father. What influence has the ambiguity of her father’s identity had on her writing? “It was an element, perhaps in my initially having very little self-confidence. I think that was the main influence on my writing. On the other hand, my work is full of father substitutes...people standing in as parents for real parents who are missing is a very common theme in my writing, and for the most part this is a beneficial relationship, but not always.” In speaking about war as a theme, however, Barker is keen to move away from the autobiographical: “I think war is a very fundamental question; why are we as a species addicted to killing each other on a massive scale? Other species don’t do it. We are actually risking the whole life on this planet by this particular trait that all human beings in all cultures seem to have.”
Barker’s daughter Anna Ralph is also a novelist. “She hasn’t written for a while, because she’s got a very small child, and I know how difficult that is. We used to have some lovely times at the kitchen table with a glass of wine, talking about it, and we still do sometimes. I think it might be easier for her if she was working in totally different field – writing fantasy or something like that. We are very alike. There’s a sort of gritty realism there which just comes out.“
Barker speaks tenderly of her husband, David, who died in 2009. Letting out a sharp sigh, she explains the effect of this on the process of finishing a novel. “It’s made it extremely difficult. I would say, really, that at that point my daughter Anna became my first reader. I do seem to need a first reader who is not part of the publishing trade. I would recommend that to anybody.”
Barker is accustomed to seeing her work on the screen; her debut Union Street was adapted into Stanley and Iris, starring Jane Fonda and Robert De Niro, and Regeneration hit screens in 1997. How does she feel about her books being turned into films? “I find it very easy to turn and walk away…I make myself available to the script writer, but I make it very clear to them that this is their baby. It’s no longer mine…The film of Regeneration I thought was quite a good film, actually. It was very very sincerely done by people who had a genuine feeling for the subject, Those are the only two so far, but there may be more.”
What future writing projects does Barker have planned? It seems the author intends to continue with the subject matter of the First World War, and explore her latest characters in greater depth; “I’m going to take some of these characters forward in time. I’d like to meet them in early middle age, moaning on about how old they are.”