Pat Barker's 'World': Familial woes

May 23, 1999|By Harry Merritt | By Harry Merritt,Sun Staff

"Another World," by Pat Barker. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 278 pages. $25.

The first thing to know about Pat Barker's "Another World" is that it has nothing to do with the creaky, soon-to-disappear NBC daytime soap of the same name. The second is that it's a fine but disturbing novel about secrets and crimes, real and imagined.

Set in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, on England's northeast coast, "Another World" is the story of Nick and Fran, a tense, unpleasant couple, and their family: toddler son Jasper and two disagreeable adolescents, Miranda (Nick's daughter) and Gareth (Fran's son).

Gareth is particularly loathsome, addicted to violent video games and to an elaborate ritual of personal dental hygiene that he completes by taking Nick's toothbrush and running it under the rim of the toilet bowl before returning it to its holder. Both he and Miranda are exasperated by "sticky, screaming, smelly Jasper"; they would be happy to be rid of him.

In an effort to promote family harmony, Fran suggests they work together to redecorate the living room of their new home, a once grand Victorian manse. As they scrape off the wallpaper, they uncover an alarming painting of a family -- father, mother, two adolescents and a toddler. The picture is angry and graphic -- the woman's breasts and the man's erection are exposed -- and Nick and Fran are shocked.

"It's us," Miranda cries. Once the painting is revealed, "Another World" is transformed -- from mildly interesting story of a coarse, dysfunctional family to can't-put-it-down literary thriller. How did the painting get there? Who is it, and what does it mean? What crime does the picture portray? Something in history -- or somehow their future?

Nick learns some of the answers but does not tell Fran. At the same time, he is making his final visits to Geordie, his 101-year-old grandfather, who seems to be reliving his service in the trenches during World War I. (Barker won the Booker Prize, Britain's highest literary honor, in 1995 for "The Ghost Road," about a working-class lieutenant in the Great War.) Geordie maintains he killed his older brother, Harry -- their mother's favorite child -- during the war. Did he, or is his ancient mind misremembering things?

At any given moment, the reader is learning about a century-old murder, expecting a murder to be committed and wondering whether the character who is a century old really did commit a murder.

There's a lot going on in "Another World," and a writer less skilled than Barker might make a mess of it all. She does not; she has written what may well be one of the year's most memorable novels.

Harry Merritt is a Sun features editor. He worked previously at the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, where he edited various award-winning series, supervised political and legislative coverage and was the writing coach.

Pub Date: 05/23/99

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