Double Vision showcases Pal Barker's novelistic strengths and passions: intense psychological and moral responses to world affairs; the evolution of individual integrity; connections between local and international violence; an acute appreciation for landscape. Like Regeneration, her celebrated World War I novel, Double Vision is a transfixing story about the personal consequences of wartime engagement and disengagement and about the redemptive power of facing the truth.
While Barker is feted for her portraits of men at war, Double Vision, her 10th novel, introduces complex women characters as well, reminding us of her first three books, which launched her as a feminist writer. This narrative opens in familiar Barker territory, a village near Newcastle, England. Kate Frobisher, a sculptor, is mourning her husband, Ben, a news photographer recently killed in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Ben's friend and journalist colleague Stephen Sharkey has just returned from the battlefield to write a book about the mutable "truths" of war reporting.
Kate is struggling with a 15-foot sculpture, a figure of Christ, commissioned by the local cathedral to be erected on a hill in rime for Easter. Suddenly, an almost fatal auto accident leaves her seriously injured. She is panicked about her deadline. Alec, the local vicar, suggests she hire young Peter Wingrave, a seasonally unemployed gardener. Independent, sometimes taciturn Kate reluctantly agrees to enlist charming Peter's assistance with some of the arduous physical labor.
The northern English countryside is a character that resembles the humans on this stage--both benign and ominous, always concealing secret meaning. Kate is deeply attuned to season and time of day:
The weather turned colder, until one day, returning from her walk, she noticed that the big puddle immediately outside her front gate was filmed with ice, like a cataract dulling the pupil of an eye. She heated a bowl of soup, built up the fire and huddled over it, while outside the temperature dropped, steadily, hour by hour, until a solitary brown oak leaf detaching itself from the tree fell onto the frost-hard ground with a crackle that echoed through the whole forest. (pp. 1-2)
The story opens in the dark days of winter and ends with the promise of Eastertide. Barker employs allegorical names and other metaphors such as Kate's recurring memory of the crypt of Lord and Lady Chillingham, who have lain side by side for live hundred years in their local church. Stephen is frequently haunted by the recollection of a dead girl in Sarajevo, "Eyes wide open, skirt bunched up around her waist, her splayed thighs enclosing a blackness of blood and pain." Both Kate and Stephen are drawn to the stark Goya painting of seven imprisoned, shackled men in the nearby Bowes Museum, stirred by the artist's observation, "One cannot look at this. I saw it. This is the truth."
As Stephen writes Ms book and Kate, recovering from her injuries, chips away at the sculpture she calls "The Christ," a tentative friendship develops. Romance hovers with Kate gradually surfacing from grief and Stephen, whose wife had an affair during his absence, shedding the pain of his broken marriage. The two attractive, 40-ish people share aesthetic and political interests as well as a bond to their beloved Ben.
However, Stephen is surprised to find himself in an affair with Vicar Alec's daughter Justine, a precocious, strong-minded young woman. Justine has just deferred entrance to Cambridge for a year and is working as an au pair for Stephen's brother. Kate, meanwhile, becomes preoccupied by her attentive, enigmatic aide, Peter. Barker has imagined the lives of her whole cast in precise detail. Although Kate and Stephen are the spotlighted characters, their stories are rendered through complicated interactions with friends and relatives. As always, Barker's people live in context, geographical and historical. The encounters among them--Kate and the vicar; Stephen and his brother's family; Peter Wingrave and the other villagers---are wrought with the clarity and authority only possible from an intimate third-person omniscient narrator.
While Kate and Stephen mend from their different wounds, everyone copes with physical or psychic threats or moral dilemmas. Justine learns to distinguish between autonomy and fear of intimacy. Alec faces dismissal when he falls in love with a parishioner. Stephen's brother Robert tackles the quagmire of his own marriage. Robert's son Adam tries to create a place for himself in the wilderness, safe from classmate's taunts about his Asperger's Syndrome (a form of autism).
Peter becomes more tantalizingly enigmatic throughout the book and in the end is the one character limited by his allegorical weight. Early on, one learns he is an ex-convict, pursuing a writing career while supporting himself with manual labor. Vicar Alec, his self-appointed mentor, defends Peter's right to be accepted without disclosing the nature of his crime, even though he has had an affair with Alec's daughter and is working alone with Kate in her remote studio.
The only way Peter can survive is through strange and faintly menacing masquerades. Pretending to be shortsighted, he wears spectacles made out of clear glass. He presents himself as a gentle, artistic soul, belying the severity of his past transgressions: Late in the novel, Alec reveals that Peter, as a small lad, committed a burglary and murdered an old woman. The parallel between Peter Wingrave and the young murderer Danny in Barker's Border Crossing is so striking that perhaps Barker feels she had already developed this characterization. Yet unless one has read Border Crossing and believes that every child murderer is identical, one searches fruitlessly for the person beyond the symbol in Peter Wingrave.
Kate is troubled by the fleeting image of a white van, like Peter's, that she glimpsed the night of her accident. Could he have been involved somehow? Then one evening during a storm that knocks out phone and power lines, Kate looks out the window to see Peter in her studio. "Her mind grappled with the wrongness of the image, and then she * realized he was wearing her clothes, even to the fur hat with earflaps that she sometimes wore when the studio was really cold. He looked ridiculous, terrifying. Deranged." She doesn't intervene, because he is not altering "The Christ." "If he had been destroying her work, she must and would have confronted him, but ... [h]e was stealing her power in an almost ritualistic way."
Double Vision is layered with intriguingly contradictory relationships in which people learn about themselves, each other, and their agency in the larger world. Stephen's and Kate's views of the deceased Ben, Stephen's and Justine's experiences of their affair, everyone's fears and projections about Peter--all these notions raise important questions about what can be seen at the intersection of time present, observation, and memory.
As Stephen says to Kate about Goya's self-interpretation,
"This is the truth." It's that argument he's having with himself, all the time, between the ethical problems of showing the atrocities and yet the need to say, "Look, this is what's happening." ....There's always this tension between wanting to show the truth, yet being sceptical about what the effects of showing it are going to be. (p. 100)
Double Vision brims with such philosophical issues, yet it is never didactic or overly cerebral Readers are caught up in Barker's brisk pace and spare, nuanced language as the story raises discrete and interconnected questions. Will Kate finish her sculpture? Will Stephen produce a readable, "true" book? Will Justine accept her place at Cambridge? Will Stephen's brother separate from his wife? And what on earth is Peter Wingrave up to? Barker's surprising climax pushes the reader off center in a provocative, unforgettable manner.