IN HER NEW novel, Pat Barker takes as inspiration the late paintings of Francisco Goya. Perhaps the greatest of eighteenth-century artists, Goya explored human brutality in paintings such as The Third ofMay 1808, which depicted Spanish peasants being shot by a French execution squad. Viewers of that painting are invited to identify both with the lullers and the lulled. As he neared the end of his life, deaf and increasingly frightened, Goya produced the ‘black’ paintings in which rationality seems to have been entirely conquered by nightmarish horrors.
In Double Vision the paintings have great meaning for Kate Frobisher because her husband, a war photographer recently shot dead in Afghanistan, had been on a similar mission to show the brutalising effects of war. Now Stephen, the reporter he worked with, has come to live near Kate’s house in the North of England, while he writes a book about the problems of representing war. Kate, meanwhile, is working on a fifteen-foot sculpture of the risen Christ, for the local church. Stephen’s psychiatrist brother and his wife, unhappily married, live up the road. Their son is looked after by Justine, a buxom au pair. At the centre of this group of characters is a vicar who seems powerless to act for the good.
Stephen is plagued by nightmares and flashbacks to some horrifying experiences in Bosnia, but if he hopes to rehabilitate himself in the English countryside, he has chosen the wrong place to do it. The village is about to become the canvas on which Barker will explore her own ideas about brutality.
Kate starts things off, with a bad car accident. Later there is a burglary in which a character is violently attacked. Kate’s helper in the studio has a fascination with violent crime. Stephen relives terrible episodes he has witnessed in war.
There are ghoulish details to add to the picture – for example, Stephen’s autistic nephew loves to collect animal skulls. Other characters have a way of stumbling into horrors. They go out for a walk or a drive and end up getting cut by barbed wire, being attacked by birds, or accidentally killing something carry on the road. If they try to clean the oven, they get burned by the chemicals. Even the landscape in which they live is menacing, marked as it is by the pyres on which cattle infected with foot-and-mouth have recently been incinerated.
One has the impression of a group of people who have absorbed brutality and somehow leached it into their surroundings. Talking of war correspondents, Justine says: ‘People get into darkness, to the point where it’s the light that hurts.’
Barker uses a palette of darks to rival Goya’s. When characters gather together indoors, darkness presses against the windows, or trees cut out the available light. Outside, the wind beats the bushes ’till they showed the white undersides of their leaves as if in fear’. The mist rolls in like ‘a pad soaked in chloroform pressed down suddenly over nose and mouth’.
At the start of the novel we learn about two projects: Stephen’s book about ways to record war and Kate’s sculpture of Christ, who, though necessarily imposing, must also be made to seem human. Both place man’s capacity for good and evil at the thematic centre of the novel. Barker poses interesting questions. Is it always voyeuristic to witness brutality? Can the photograph of an atrocity ever inspire hope?
But these problems are oddly sidelined by Stephen’s growing interest in Justine, the au pair, and his realisation that having great sex with her is going to make him feel better about life. Kate, an engaging character at the start, recedes into the shadows.
Such is the accumulation of horrors that the redemption, when it comes, seems very small. Barker is an immensely skilled writer. and this is a powerful book. but by the end of it I was longing to look away from her dreadful canvas, and yearning for some light.