The ghosts of memory
With a dazzling economy of words and precision of language, Pat Barker has constructed a quiet, elegant ghost story, in which the specter of the past literally and figuratively haunts a contemporary family. In just 278 briskly plotted pages, the Booker Prize-winning novelist deftly explores the emotional dissolution of a household, probes the complexities of sibling hatred, animates the horrors of a bygone war, and plumbs the power of old wounds to leak into the present. During a muggy summer in the northern English city of Newcastle, a family moves into Lob's Hill, a Victorian house once belonging to a local industrialist named Fanshawe. Nick and Fran have each brought a child to the family Nick's 13-year-old daughter Miranda and Fran's troubled 11-year-old son Gareth. Together they have a two-year-old son, Jasper, and Fran is once again pregnant. It is, at best, a tentative family, given to frequent rows and strained communication. In an effort to involve them in a common activity, Fran corrals the family into a redecorating project. But when they scrape away the faded wallpaper in the living room, they find a disturbing image drawn on the plaster beneath a portrait of the Fanshawes, distorted with obscene details.
Ominously, the make-up of the Edwardian family mirrors their own.
Nick's research unearths the details of an ugly crime involving the death of the Fanshawes' baby and the incrimination of the older children. But he is preoccupied by a more immediate, imminent death, as his 101-year-old grandfather, Geordie, succumbs to the ravages of cancer. Muddled, Geordie imagines that he is dying from a bayonet wound he sustained three-quarters of a century before during the Great War. The symbolism of this misconception is not lost on Nick, who knows that memories of that vile war have haunted Geordie. What Nick does not know is the whole truth behind Geordie's lifelong guilt over the combat death of his brother.
There may be an actual ghost in Another World—the apparition of the Fanshawe daughter, who seems to appear to the children at pivotal moments that echo past events—but the real ghost is memory: lingering, slippery and magnified by time.
Robert Weibezahl is co-author of A Taste of Murder.