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lizasengland

In the past I have loved Pat Barker’s two war trilogies – The Regeneration Trilogy and the trilogy which began with Life Class. I also enjoyed some years ago a novel called Border Crossing. Liza’s England is an early Barker novel from 1986 – although it was then entitled A Century’s Daughter (a little bit Catherine Cookson that title for me) and so I do prefer the title was selected for this 1990’s VMC edition. Liza’s England; while it doesn’t quite have the depth or scope of either of Barker’s war trilogies it does concern itself with several of the themes of those novels. The effects of war – mental health and familial relationships, set against a landscape of change; Liza’s England is the story of a woman born on the stroke of midnight at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Walker Street; somewhere in the North East of England, Liza Jarrett is now in her eighties – the same age as the century to the very minute, and she has a fragile newspaper cutting to prove it. She lives in the house she moved to in 1922 with her war damaged, spiritualist husband and young son. Now the houses on the other side of the street have been pulled down, replaced by high rise flats – and now Liza’s side of the street is condemned too. Undaunted Liza intends to remain in the house filled with the voices and memories of her life, despite being the sole remaining inhabitant in a street destined for demolition. Living entirely downstairs as she can no longer manage the stairs – Liza is content with the company of Nelson a parrot she adopted in 1967 when the pub where it lived closed down, and her precious box of mementoes close by. Mrs Jubb – a home help comes in more hours than she is actually paid for, and the three rub along ok in far from ideal conditions.

“He saw how time had moulded, almost gouged out, the sockets of her eyes, how two deep lines of force had been cut into the skin between nose and lip, how the hand that came up to grasp the scarlet shawl was brown-speckled, claw-like, but finely made. He saw, too, that her neck was grained with dirt, that there was dirt in the lines of her face, that the scarlet shawl was stained with parrot shit. None of this mattered. Like a rock that wind and sea have worked on since the beginning of time, she needed to apologize for nothing, explain nothing.”

Liza is visited by Stephen, a young, gay social worker – somewhat disenchanted with the work he has done in the past – he now splits his time between disaffected youth on sprawling housing estates and an advice centre. Stephen needs to try and persuade Liza of the benefits of moving to a retirement maisonette – where she will be safer. As the two get to know one another over subsequent visits, Liza learns slowly to trust her new friend, she shares with him the stories of her life, and Stephen tells Liza about his own. Stephen’s partner is in America and he carries the letters he sends inside his jacket pocket missing him, as he makes his home in a flat that was once part of a grand house – where Liza’s mother skivvied before the First World War. In the family home where Stephen hasn’t lived for years, his father is dying, and Stephen finds himself living again in his old bedroom now feeling both familiar and strange.

Liza’s life was a hard one, born into a large working class family – she never felt loved by her mother – although she had adored her father. The stories of Liza’s life take us to a crowded tenement home before the First World War, and the munitions factories of the war where servant girls rub shoulders with upper class daughters doing their bit. After the war Liza marries Frank Wright, a young man damaged by the war – he has turned his hand to spiritualism, speaking in the voices of the young men he grew up with, served alongside and watched die. A few years into her marriage, with one young son, and a husband whose behaviour is increasingly erratic, Liza moves into the house where Stephen finds her sixty years later. Liza becomes a key figure in this community – her neighbour Mrs Dobbin who along with the midwife is attendant at the birth of both Liza’s daughter and granddaughter.

“Walker Street got off lightly: all the other houses destroyed were empty. Stunned people came and looked at the wreckage, moving around the fallen timbers like ghosts or scavenging in a haphazard way for their possessions, but at least, with the exception of Mr Bower, there were no dead to mourn.
The rest of Tom’s leave was spent helping to clear up. With so much rush and confusion Liza had no time to dread his going. Only at the station she thought: This may be the last time I see him.
As the train pulled away, she wrenched herself out of Eileen’s grasp and ran along beside it. On the other side of the glass were khaki shadows, thin as reflections in water. One of them leaned forward and pressed his hand against the glass. Then a cloud of smoke and steam blew across the platform and hid him from her sight.”

In time war comes to the country again, and Liza watches her son Tom, so reminiscent of her darling brother Edward, heading off to war, while Liza remains behind with her difficult, chaotic daughter Eileen. Eileen is destined to make some poor choices in her life – and Liza takes on the parenting of her granddaughter Kath.

Now Liza can’t imagine being anywhere else, she imagines she can still hear Mrs Dobbin rattling the grate on the other side of their shared wall – but Mrs Dobbin is long dead – and one else is living on the other side of the wall. Stephen is drawn to Liza’s stories – and in an attempt to help her move on – he persuades her to allow him to take her out and to see the changed industrial landscape by the river.

“The wind keened across the brown land, and it seemed to Liza that it lamented vanished communities, scattered families, extinguished fires. Mourned the men who’d crowded to the ferry boat, at each and every change of shift, their boots striking sparks from the cobbles as they ran.
She saw her father among them, and his voice echoed down the road that was no longer a road. Ginger-black, afraid of nobody. Men spilling out of the pubs to watch him race”

Throughout her long, hard life Liza has shown strength, good sense and humour, her loyalty to her family, neighbours and community has been unwavering and in her last lone battle she will need every bit of strength she has.

Liza’s England is one of those books I have had on my shelf an age – and I no longer remember where I got it. It reminds me of two things – one to drag down the books I have had years more often – and to ensure that I read everything Pat Barker has written.

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noonday

Noonday is the third book in Pat Barker’s second war trilogy – which began with Life Class and Toby’s Room. The first two novels followed three young artists in the years immediately before, during and after the First World War. In Noonday we meet these characters again in middle age as bombs rain down on England during the autumn of 1940. I particularly loved Toby’s Room; although ridiculously I had forgotten the very end – and had to look it up on Wikipedia (wiki is great for spoiler littered plot summaries). However, I think Noonday would stand up perfectly well on its own, but I do think my reading was enhanced by having read and enjoyed the first two volumes.

Elinor Brooke (still using her maiden name professionally) is married to Paul Tarrant, they haven’t had children and as the novel begins Elinor is staying in the country with her sister Rachel, while their mother is dying. Rachel (critical and traditional as ever) and her husband have an evacuee Kenny from London staying with them, although have done little to make him feel welcome. Kenny feels particularly drawn to Paul, the one person who has shown him sympathy, so when during one of Paul’s visits, and following a particularly bad raid over London, Kenny begs him to take him home to find his mother. It seems already, even as early into the war as 1940 people were bringing their children home in large numbers. Paul helps Kenny find his mother, among the bomb damage and chaos of the East End, worrying whether he has done the right thing exposing the boy to such risk.

“Kenny looked around him. ‘it’s all gone’
Paul opened his mouth, but had no idea what to say. He was about to suggest that Kenny should come back inside the house, when at the far end of the street, they saw a woman walking towards them with a baby in her arms. Kenny ran towards her shouting, ‘Mam! Mam!’ she stopped, but then came on no more quickly. Her clothes were black and torn, her face blackened too. She might even be burnt, Paul thought. At any rate she’d lost her eyebrows. She looked dully at Kenny. ‘Oh it’s you.’”

london blitzBack in London Elinor is working as an ambulance driver, alongside her old friend Kit Neville, with whom relations have been a little strained since Elinor’s brother’s death in WW1. In the years since then Kit married Elinor’s best friend and spent several years in America before his divorce. With Paul working as an air raid warden, the three are well placed to view the daily devastation, loss and horror of the nightly raids upon the capital. Paul, Elinor and Kit are of that unlucky generation whose hopes, dreams and youth were effectively destroyed by the First World War, they fought, they lost loved ones, and they came home bearing the scars, physical and mental. The art the three created during that war made their names; they have become well established within the art world, and Elinor asked to become an official war artist, decides to paint the truth, not a sanitised version of it. Now more than twenty years later they are caught up in another war, a war which inevitably brings back memories of that earlier conflict, opens old wounds, and tests their relationships with one another to the limit. Old passions, griefs and obsessions come bubbling to the surface again.

What Pat Barker does so very brilliantly is to explore with devastating authenticity the nightmare that London became, a nightly hell almost unimaginable. Each new day showing newly created spaces where houses once stood, the last of the bodies cleared away, as Londoners try to carry on with their difficult lives. Pat Barker’s war ravaged London is an uncomfortable place to be, forget the stories of sing songs in shelters, and sharing of cocoa, this a place where children die, a place where people wander traumatised and heartbroken through the wreckage of their homes, I think we can all understand how anchorless we would feel if our home was suddenly gone. Part of Elinor’s story is told in diary form in which she describes beautifully how the loss of her own home makes her feel.

“I miss my house. It’s like grief for a person- an actual physical craving – and yes, I know it’s only bricks and mortar and it shouldn’t matter when every day – or rather every night- so many more important things are being lost. Lives, for God’s sake. And yet I can’t talk myself out of it. There’s a particular place – was a particular place – at the bottom of the basement stairs. You turn left and there’s a small window looking out on to the back garden and it has a cupboard underneath. I used to keep a jug of flowers there. We bought the jug in Deià, very cheap, but beautiful, and the flowers came from the garden in summer, in winter it was twigs and leaves, hemlock, I used to get it from the river bank here, catkins… Nothing cost more than a few pennies, but in that particular place, at particular times of day – late afternoon when the sun struck the window at a slight angle and shone through the leaves, delineating every vein on every leaf, it was perfection.”

We meet Bertha Mason, newly released from prison, a medium, who Paul comes across on several occasions, a ward maid in a hospital, her spiritualist evenings are packed with the bereaved. Bertha is an enormous woman, a foul mouthed northerner; she carries the dead with her.

I really think Noonday is quite brilliant, every bit as powerful as much of Pat Barker’s famous Regeneration trilogy. Noonday is the first novel of Barker’s which chronicles the Second World War, and it does so with breath-taking honesty and realism.

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toby's room

Pat Barker – birthday 8th May

Toby’s Room is a companion novel to Life Class, I had thought it was a sequel – but it’s not really, the novel would stand alone. However I am glad I read the novels in this order. In Life Class we met Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville and these characters are central to Toby’s Room as well. When I was reading Life Class I found Elinor a cold and elusive character and after reading Toby’s Room I find she remains just a little out of reach –I am sure this is deliberate.
Toby’s Room opens two years before the events in Life Class – Elinor and her brother Toby have had a special close relationship since they were small, they even look alike – especially once Elinor has cut off her hair. Elinor is an art student at the Slade, studying under surgeon/artist Henry Tonks – a difficult and exacting tutor – who later in the war spends his time drawing portraits of horribly disfigured men. Henry Tonks is a character taken from life – his drawings of wounded men can still be seen today. Toby is a medical student. In the suffocating atmosphere of their family home, their parents leading separate lives, their traditionally married sister rather smug and critical, Elinor and Toby’s relationship is complex, and as the lines between them blur their relationship changes forever.

“Somehow or other they had to get back to the ways things were. What had happened was not something that could be talked about, or explained, or analysed, or in any other way resolved. It could only be forgotten.”

Five years later, and the war has taken its toll on Elinor and her Slade friends. Paul back from France with a permanent limp and in constant pain is more fortunate than some. Toby – who had spent his time serving as a doctor on the front line, patching up the injured – even leaving the relative safety of his post to bring back injured men from the mud of the trenches, constantly putting himself in harm’s way – is “missing presumed dead.” Kit Neville had been part of Toby’s unit – but is now lying in a facial injuries hospital – the hospital where his old tutor Tonks draws the faces of disfigured men.
With Toby missing presumed dead, Elinor has something missing in herself, her grief is raw and terrible. Coldly refusing to have anything to do with the war, the war has finally come to her, with Toby’s death and Paul and Kit’s injuries. Still strongly committed to her art she has produced many landscape paintings of the countryside around their childhood home – in every one there is a shadow, a presence of the brother that is gone. Back in the family home – which is in the process of being broken up – is Toby’s Room, which remains a powerful reminder for Elinor.

“Lying between the sheets, she felt different; her body had turned into bread dough, dough that’s been kneaded and pounded till it’s grey, lumpen, no yeast in it, no lightness, no prospect of rising. Her arms lay stiff by her sides. When, finally, she drifted off to sleep, she dreamt she was on her knees in a corner of the room, trying to vomit without attracting the attention of the person who was asleep on the bed. Her eyes wide open in the darkness, she tried to cast off the dream, but it stayed with her till morning.”

In fact Toby is a constant haunting presence throughout the novel, although he is mainly seen through the memories of Elinor’s artist friends – especially the morphine induced hallucinations of Kit Neville.
When Paul visits Elinor and seeing the paintings she has finished, he is concerned by her apparent obsession to find out exactly what happened to Toby. Having had his belongings returned to the house, Elinor discovers part of an unfinished letter in the lining of Toby’s jacket – which puzzles her. When she writes to Kit Neville – who had served with her brother – she receives no reply. When Kit is returned to England with horrible facial injuries – Elinor insists on going to see him, despite Tonks having warned Paul to leave him alone. At the facial injuries hospital Elinor finds work to do alongside her former tutor – work that bring her into contact with Kit. There is a mystery surrounding Toby’s death, Elinor is convinced of that, and she enlists Paul’s help in finding out what that is.

Toby’s Room is a blistering account of the ravages of war on people, their relationships and – in a departure from other WW1 novels – their art. I love Pat Barker’s writing – and although Life Class and Toby’s Room are not quite as powerful as the utterly brilliant Regeneration trilogy – there are still many beautifully written passages infused with Barkers brilliant understatement, which leave the reader with a host of remarkable images to ponder on.

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lifeclass

Pat Barker (birthday – 8th May)

Like Pat Barker’s hugely successful Regeneration trilogy ‘Life Class’ is set just before and during the First World War. As the novel opens Paul Tarrant an art student studying at the Slade School of art takes his place in the life drawing class tutored by the difficult Henry Tonks. Paul has a tough time under Tonks, leading him to even question his talent in his frustration. Paul and his artistic friends spend many evenings at the Café Royal, where he is introduced to Teresa, a beautiful troubled young woman, who Paul soon becomes involved with. In the background however, is Elinor Brooke another Slade student who is admired by both Paul and fellow artist Kit Neville. Paul is a lesser artist than Kit and Elinor, both of whom seem to be teetering on the brink of brilliance.

As tensions in Europe rise, Elinor invites both Paul and Kit to spend some time with her family at their home, but Elinor is reticent of getting too involved with Kit who wants to marry her, and knows that Paul is also attracted to her – but she keeps them both at arm’s length. Elinor is a modern young woman, shockingly short haired she is unconventional in many ways and doesn’t dream of the traditional role of wife and mother that other young women content themselves with. For Elinior is serious about her art, and anxious not to end up like her mother and sister. When war comes Elinor wants only to continue with her art, she prefers to ignore the war as much as possible, despite her brother Toby enlisting and going off to France.

With the outbreak of hostilities, and unable to serve in the army, both Paul and Kit Neville find themselves in Belgium, as Red Cross volunteers. Here Paul works with men dreadfully injured, many of whom don’t survive their injuries. Paul and the people he works alongside have an impossible task – by the time the injured arrive at their station their wounds are already infected – they are in fact fighting their own losing battle. There is a soldier so desperate he tries to shoot himself, failing to kill himself, he is patched up, so that later he can be shot for desertion. A frustrated and enraged surgeon kicks an amputated limb across the operating room. These are not pretty images, but they are powerful. Pat Barker’s writing about World War I is uncompromising and unforgettable.

“But then, that’s the question. Should you even pause to consider your own reactions? These men suffer so much more than he does, more than he can imagine. In the face of their suffering, isn’t it self-indulgent to think about his own feelings? He has nobody to talk to about such things and blunders his way through as best he can. If you feel nothing -this is what he comes back to time and time again -you might just as well be a machine, and machines aren’t very good at caring for people. There’s something machine-like about a lot of the professional nurses here. Even Sister Byrd, whom he admires, he looks at her sometimes and sees an automaton. Well, lucky for her, perhaps. It’s probably more efficient to be like that. Certainly less painful.”

When new recruit Lewis arrives, without the matter of fact cynicism that Paul has acquired, he is accommodated in Paul’s hut, and therefore under his wing. Paul finds this responsibility irritating, and the sharing of his space difficult – wanting somewhere where he could at least theoretically paint on his days off. Paul rents a room in the small nearby town, and invites Elinor to stay, for a short time. Here their relationship naturally moves on a pace. However the war encroaches and Elinor must leave suddenly – and return to the safety of England.
The longer Paul stays in Belgium, tending to the horribly injured, later driving ambulances – leaving injured men he cannot accommodate in the road, even dealing with piles of dead bodies – the more of himself he seems to lose. The distance between he and Elinor seems greater as her letters become less frequent, and the world he once inhabited seems a long way away. Back in London Elinor has joined a group of pacifists and conscientious objectors led by society hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell. As letters pass between the two lovers it becomes apparent that neither can fully understand the world of the other.

After the bombardment of Ypres, Paul begins to see the world very differently, on his return to London, Paul must determine whether his experiences have changed him completely – and where, if anywhere, he now fits.
I found Life Class a compelling and powerful novel, Pat Barkers descriptions of injured men, and the bombardment of Ypres transport the reader to Belgium in the early days of World War I. The novel’s opening in the months before the outbreak of war, the frivolity, flirting and possibilities that life offers these young people contrast starkly with what comes later. I now cannot wait to read the sequel Toby’s Room which I have on my kindle.

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Synopsis
When Tom Seymour, a child psychologist, plunges into a river to save a young man from drowning, he unwittingly reopens a chapter from his past he’d hoped to forget. For Tom already knows Danny Miller – when Danny was ten Tom helped imprison him for the killing of an old woman. Now out of prison with a new identity, Danny has some questions – questions he thinks only Tom can answer. Reluctantly, Tom is drawn back into Danny’s world – a place where the border between good and evil, innocence and guilt is blurred and confused. But when Danny’s demands on Tom become extreme, Tom wonders whether he has crossed a line of his own – and in crossing it, can he ever go back?

This is a brilliant novel, if I hadn’t of been so busy/tired the last two days I would have finished it much quicker because it is the sort of book that is very hard to put down. Danny Miller is a chillingly believable character – who you are never quite sure about – whether or not he is a threat to Tom or not. It is also a fascinating look at the aftermath of a terrible crime comitted by a child which hits the headlines – and has everyone talking – but what happens to the child when they are released? I have previously read the Regeneration trilogy by this author, and am now a bit of a fan.

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The third of the regeneration series – I am so glad that I have read it – there are some tough things to reconcile in it but it is powerful and wonderful. In this book the war is coming to an end, Rivers spends alot of time remembering his time as an anthrapologist in Melanesia among a tribe of headhunters. Billy Prior goes back to France, as does Wilfred Owen.

Another fascinating read, I was glad that in this book I found out a lot more about Rivers. How amazing that he and his sisters had known Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) as a child. The details of Rivers time in a community of headhunters in Melanesia(?) was really fascinating, and not something I would have expected of the third book in The Regeneration series.
In addition we meet up again with Billy Prior, and Wilfred Owen. The ending – well inevitable, and sad really.

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The stories of ‘temporary gentleman’ Billy Prior, Siegfried Sassoon and the army psychologist Rivers continue in the second part of the Regeneration trilogy, along with that of a new character, the wounded homosexual officer Charles Manning. Themes include class struggle, anti-war activists disrupting munitions production, an army doctor’s attempts to balance the conflicting needs of the army and his patients, and anti-homosexual propaganda.

Although a book of very difficult themes, it is surprisingly readable, and I found it taught me quite a lot too. The are several aspects which make this a fascinating read: the treatment of homosexuals and the anti-war propaganda of the time, the Pemberton Billings case, and the supposed plot to poision Lloyd George, all of which are based on actual events, and none of which I had heard of previously. The themes of this novel, are powerfully summed up in the character of Billy Prior. I think I enjoyed Regeneration more than this one – although I’m not sure why, because this is a really good read too.

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