Friday, December 16, 2005

Neglected but Wonderful

Border Crossing, by Pat Barker, Read by Simon Prebble, Clipper Audio, 2001

While not exactly in media res at its beginning, British novelist Pat Barker’s fantastically good “mystery” Border Crossing plunges us straight into the action. This is all fine and good, particularly since the rest of book is surprisingly devoid of action (in its most commonly understood meaning and similar to the book’s opening).

We are less than three minutes into the scene setting before we get to the dramatic moment when young Danny Miller chugs a bottle full of pills before leaping off a bridge into the river Tyne. He is pulled from the river by child psychologist Tom Seymour — who just happens to have been the doctor whose testimony in court helped convict Danny of the murder of an old woman when he was only ten years old.

If that sounds too likely to be a coincidence, you’re not alone in thinking so. The thought haunts Tom, though he is so distracted by the crumbling of his marriage due to he and his wife’s inability to get pregnant (which seems almost common in British novels), that he has a difficult time following up on it. It is a mark of an intelligent novelist that the characters immediately think it’s less than chance but more than coincidence, yet are too tentative to suggest such a thing to Danny’s face. A tension is set early on by this question, was it a grand gesture of Danny’s directed at Tom or was it merely completely chance?

Whatever the motivations, it is clear that Danny is still a very troubled person and Tom is unable to quite let him go. Questions about the haunting nature of the crime (after the woman was dead, Danny apparently played with her body, dragging her around her house and positioning her), and the dubious nature of guilt and conscience at such a young age, plague Tom to the point that he agrees to begin treatment of Danny.

We follow then a story that is partly Danny’s biography, as he relives what made him the child he was to commit such an action as well as what events transpired as a result of his conviction, and partly Tom’s deepening involvement in Danny’s life just as his own is coming completely apart. Tom interviews several of Danny’s acquaintances from those years and Barker uses this rather simple plot device to ask deep and serious questions about the nature of guilt, memory, perspective, and the wide-ranging assumptions we carry around about people we suppose we know.

Again, something always so pleasant with a certain brand of mystery thrillers, most commonly British ones, is the presence of a world that exists prior to and simultaneously with, but separate from, the plot of the novel’s story. We meet Tom’s widowed mother, reminisce about his own childhood in counterpoint with Danny’s, about both their dead fathers, and there is a fully felt richness to the details, like the dog his mom gets from a pound, a duplicate to a previous but now-dead canine companion. This larger world isn’t just the backdrop to the dominant aspects of the plot; the revisitation of the murder has a profound impact on this world, subtly altering it, yet there are bedrock elements, minor characters’ own worlds, own concerns, separate from it that continue to chug on.

As Tom’s wife leaves him and he sinks into depression, Barker writes of a loneliness so intense that late at night, troubled by insomnia, Tom feels a developing kinship with a light he sees down the street, in another house, on at the same time as his. When he finally senses the pattern to it and deduces it is a light on a timer, he feels a palpable pang of ache at the loss of even this miniscule, imagined connection to humanity.

Border Crossing is a psychological thriller in the best possible sense of those words, not merely featuring a psychologist as its protagonist, but dealing with rather essential elements of reality versus illusion in psychosis, reality versus illusion in our own little constructed worlds. The book’s ending is anti-climactic, but necessarily so, essentially so, rightly so, deflating what we normally come to expect in psychological thrillers. It is true to all the characters while retaining a kind of explosive potentiality. Things can break in so many different ways; the center can or cannot hold. As is true of the best of fiction writers, Barker is asking us, what do we believe? What do we think we believe?

Simon Prebble reads. Be still my beating heart.

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