Eagerly awaiting the arrival of a writer who has been vital in my own studies, I knew that seeing Pat Barker would either strongly affirm the pleasant image I had created of her, or crush it into a tiny ball bound for the wastepaper bin. Luckily, it was the former.
Barker is just as charming as I had hoped. Her Yorkshire working class background appearing subtly in her accent as well as in her witty re-telling of childhood memories.
Yet, it is her willingness to talk about her troubled youth, specifically the absence of her father (she still, to this day, has never discovered his true identity) and the “mislaying” of her Jehovah’s Witness mother intent on denying she even had a daughter, that explains not only Barker’s apparent modesty, but the inspiration for novels such as Union Street and the critically acclaimed Regeneration Trilogy.
Despite growing up in an area rife with economic and class struggles, Barker cites the grammar school she attended in Knaresborough as her exit velocity. It was also there, Barker tells us, that she threw a penny into a wishing well. Her wish was to become a writer.
Barker’s life has been a prominent feature in her work, primarily in relation to themes of absence, loss and quasi-parental relationships – themes that also appear in her latest novel, Toby’s Room, which she discusses in great detail.
Inspired by Henry Tonks’ pastel portraits of disfigured first world war soldiers (portraits that now sit in the Royal College of Surgeons in London), Barker remains faithful to this subject matter she so clearly masters in the Regeneration Trilogy.
Yet the focus now, she explains, is on the extent to which portraits, as opposed to poetry, succeed in representing the realities of a war that has left soldiers both physically and psychologically damaged.
It is through her fictionalisation of real painters studying under Tonks at the Slade in 1914 that Barker presents the aftermath of war, re-imagining the difficulty for wounded soldiers to re-integrate themselves into civilian life.
With a confident tone, Barker reads a poignant section of her new novel that exemplifies her pre-occupation with absence and loss. Yet, in typical Barker style, the passage also contains humorous character exchanges and a playful discourse.
For Barker, it seems, the only way to represent the war is to bring it back down to reality. It is unclear at this point whether Toby’s Room will prove to be as successful as the Regeneration Triology, but, if this event is anything to go by, it is sure to be a compelling read that will present an innovative and contemporary view of the first world war.