Lisa Schwarzbaum
December 05, 2003 AT 05:00 AM EST

Double Vision

Current Status
In Season
Pat Barker
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

We gave it a B

Pat Barker has a calling to write about people fractured by violent change. In ”The Regeneration Trilogy,” her stunning early-1990s three-novel masterwork about men and wounds and healing, the unshowy British storyteller used her flowing narrative voice to convey the cataclysm of World War I. And pushing deeper, she found a way to describe horror, human resiliency, and grim lunacy, too, with a compassion that won her the 1995 Booker Prize.

The world has only gotten more dangerous in its manifestations of violence — and so Barker digs deep again: Double Vision encompasses the depravity of war crimes in Bosnia, the misery of fighting in Afghanistan, and the terror of Sept. 11, setting global-scale tragedy against the more contained but no less painful losses suffered by a handful of articulate modern Brits in the north of England. Each character undergoes some painful upheaval that leads to seeing things first one way and then the other, before and after; each crosses paths with the others; characters (and world events) move into the foreground and then recede. Anger rises, grief softens, injuries heal. And meanwhile, those double visions at the tip of Manhattan, the World Trade towers, are no more to be seen.

There is so much, indeed, that Barker wants to say in one book, so many sadnesses about which she wants to commiserate with fellow mourners, that her complicated, overdetermined novelistic structure can’t quite support the weight. Forced symmetry neatens the mess of emotions. Barker’s people are so very gracious — but strangely, uniformly temperate in the delicacy of their individual sufferings.

There’s Kate Frobisher, a recently widowed sculptor whose photojournalist husband, Ben, died while shooting the war in Afghanistan, and whose personal drama dominates the first half of the story when she’s seriously injured in a post-Christmas car accident within the first five pages. Kate needs to finish a cathedral commission — nothing less than a giant figure of Jesus — but now can’t possibly do it alone, and so, on the recommendation of the local vicar (who runs a side mission in rehabilitating delinquents), she reluctantly compromises her independence by hiring one of the pastor’s protégés, a strange, lurking fellow with a troubled past.

And there’s Stephen Sharkey, who dominates the story’s second half, a foreign correspondent who used to work with Kate’s husband, and whose own marriage collapsed the same day the Twin Towers fell, and who comes to his brother’s house in the nearby country to recuperate and write, only to be healed by a relationship with his nephew’s nanny, who is also the vicar’s daughter….

And meanwhile, the Twin Towers are no longer visions, just memories. In her author’s note, Barker mentions her attendance at the opening of Slobodan Milosevic’s war crimes trial at The Hague. In her heartfelt chronicle-digest of a novel, she adds remembrance of those atrocities to her prayer chain, then moves on.

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