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.