In Part One of this post we looked at the way Pat Barker links real events and personages with her fully realized character creations to portray the grisly horrors of WWI and its effects on soldiers and families alike. In this post we will see the writer’s craft in action as we examine her portrayal of the psychological effects of war.
In addition to her deft portrayals of the politics and history of the era, Barker has done thorough research and understands the human psyche and the power that trauma, especially war trauma, exerts over the individual. In her fully developed patient characters we see the re-experiencing of the trauma through flashbacks, nightmares and intrusive memories. When night descends on the wards of Craiglockhart, we know some poor suffering soul will be screaming out loud before the night ends. We feel the conflict of these soldiers between the desire to avoid talking about the horror and yet the very real need to exorcise the memories by looking at them head on. Barker captures the sleep disturbances and the exhausting efforts to try to “be normal” in spite of constant triggering, and she writes the most spot on descriptions of dissociation that I have seen in fiction. She also depicts the subtle, insidious toll that working with survivors of trauma takes on the clinicians who treat them—known as vicarious or secondary traumatization. I have recommended this series to students that I supervise as a primer on PTSD.
Pat Barker writes in clear, sometimes blunt prose as she immerses us in her world. Her penetrating eye captures both the interior struggles and the obvious conflicts of war. Her unflinching descriptions of life in the trenches and constant dismemberment and death of the combatants do not make for easy reading as in this passage describing the clean up after a bombardment:
A conical black hole, still smoking, had been driven into the side of the trench. Of the kettle, the frying-pan, the carefully tended fire, there was no sign, and not much of Sawdon and Towers either, or not much that was recognizable. . . . There was a pile of sandbags and shovels close by. . . Logan picked up a sandbag and held it open, and he began shoveling soil, flesh and splinters of blackened bone into the bag. As he shoveled, he retched. (Regeneration, 102)
Barker also doesn’t stint on raw details of hetero and homosexual acts, as our hero, Billy Prior, is driven by his own demons to have casual and desperate sex with many who cross his path. Yet for all the harsh and difficult reading, there are moments of ironic humor as in this entry from Prior’s diary: “We feed our faces on precisely adequate quantities of horrible food.” Barker is especially effective at conveying a sense of place with her prose. Prior goes to a washroom to clean up after a casual encounter with a prostitute, and Barker writes that Prior was thinking “. . . as he stripped off and splashed cold water over his chest and groin, that a deserted wash room at night, all white tiles and naked lights, is the most convincing portrayal of hell the human mind can devise.” (The Ghost Road, 43)
Of course, the writing that tends to move me the most is Barker’s keen observations of the internal struggles of the men and their family members. When a severely maimed and disfigured officer finally dies, his younger brother’s response is beautifully rendered: “And the boy’s face, a mask of fear and fury because he knew that any moment now the tears would start, and he’d be shamed in front of some merciless tribunal of his own mind” (The Ghost Road, 266).
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Pat Barker’s World War I trilogy is that she gives faces, personalities, and souls to the nameless and faceless legions of young men who did their duty in the Great War. She reminds us, and it is worth reminding as we finish our tenth year of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, that all wars have worthy and wonderful individual stories. Each loss is a loss for all of us.
I am interested in hearing of other books that treat war in a realistic fashion and honor the individuals, not the “glory and guts.” Can you recommend some?
A really terrific book that I read just last year is The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee. It concerns the lives of three intertwined characters suffering from survivor’s guilt–from the Japanese invasion of China, the Korean war, and domestic violence. Although Lee shows war’s horrors, his emphasis is on its aftermaths.
Thank you for the recommendation! I will keep my war reading going.
My daughter Emily is the project leader for a nonprofit organization called “Witness to War.” She has done some amazing interviews with WWII veterans and also those who have fought in successive wars. You can access them through their website http://www.witnesstowar.org. The interview she did with my dad, WWII and Korean War veteran, has given us a wealth of information that he never shared with us personally.
Sorry it has taken me so long to reply. I did go to your daughter’s website. It is great! And there is something about being interviewed, I think, that lends itself to more disclosure. Thanks for the connection with that project! C
We Were Soldiers Once and Young. It was made into movie starring Mel Gibson, but the book is unvarnished duty and sacrifice. There was an article/column in the AJC recently about the helicopter pilot who flew into the maelstrom thirteen times to extract wounded men, against orders. He was awarded the Medal of Honor. A sequel of sorts follows senior officers on both sides when they have a reunion in Vietnam.
Thank you for helping me expand my war repertoire. I have tended to avoid the Vietnam war, not sure why, but this war will be my new focus!